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2021 Editor’s Choice Award: Jesse Cole and the Savannah Bananas

In a season that began with plenty of gloom and doom, the emergence of the Savannah Bananas and head Banana Jesse Cole was a breath of fresh air, earning them an Editor’s Choice Award in the 2021 Ballpark Digest Awards.

At a time the baseball world is struggling to attract younger fans and shorten games, the Savannah Bananas struck a nerve with those desired younger fans with a fast-paced, modern take on the game of baseball. Attracting capacity crowds to Savannah’s Grayson Stadium and embarking on a sold-out One City World Tour, Cole and his team upend all the rules of baseball a la the Harlem Globetrotters, attracting new fans to the sport thanks to plenty of national coverage from the likes of ESPN, Boston Globe and USA Today. That success has led to an Editor’s Choice Award in the 2021 Ballpark Digest Awards.

Jesse Goldberg-Strassler and Kevin Reichard sat down with Cole to record this week’s Ballpark Digest podcast, discussing how the Savannah Bananas brand evolved over the years. A great part of the team’s success can be attributed to zigging when others are zagging: while many MLB and MiLB teams approached the 2021 season in a relatively muted fashion, Cole and his team dove in headfirst with a One City World Tour, scheduled a full slate of ballpark entertainment, and planned an even more ambitious plan for 2022. Here’s the podcast:

Some highlights from the discussion, illustrating why Cole and the Bananas received the award:

Some highlights of the discussion:

  • Cole and his wife Emily launched the Bananas in 2016, coming to Georgia after running the Gastonia Grizzlies, formerly in the Coastal Plain League. The emphasis, they decided, would be on plenty of entertainment in the stands, with all-inclusive food and drink. After a slow start—two ticket sales in the first three months—the pair decided to go all-in on the entertainment side, a bet that paid off in a big way with sellout crowds, attracting fans from every state in the union. That led to Banana Ball, unique variations on the rules of baseball. (See TikTok for an example!)
  • Flush with that success at home, the Bananas took their show on the road for the One City World Tour, resulting in two sold-out games at Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile, Ala. That success is leading to a longer World Tour in March 2022, featuring stops at spring-training, MiLB and MLB Partner League ballparks. The pro team hits the road and plays Banana Ball (which Jesse explains); the summer-collegiate team plays by normal baseball rules and snared a 2021 Coastal Plain League championship.
  • Though the Bananas received plenty of mainstream media coverage, the key to the team’s success means reaching fans where they are—and that means social media like TikTok, where the Bananas have 912,000 followers. (That’s more than any MLB team, by the way.) What they get isn’t a traditional social-media menu of game highlights and game-winning hits, but rather game highlights like infield karaoke, batters competing on stilts, and batters introducing themselves when coming up to bat. Yes, it’s silly and more than a little absurdist, but it’s entertaining as all heck. Anyone who hates batflips will be flummoxed; anyone who loves some flash in their baseball game will be entranced.
  • There is a method to this madness, even for organizations that don’t plan on playing Banana Ball any time soon. There are some 400 game promotions in the Bananas repertoire, and all have been tested in game situations: in fact, every game features four new promotions never before shown to a crowd. If a promo works, it stays in the rotation; if not, it goes away. (The overall success rate is around 10 percent, by the way.) If you’re a marketer, think of it as some ruthless A/B testing. The game-day experience is built around these promotions; there are 55 promos before the gate even open, and five separate areas separately host action. With the Bananas, there are no theme nights; every game is an event.
  • How did Jesse become the Man in the Yellow Tux? He draws inspiration from P.T. Barnum, the great showman and promoter, who was totally dedicated to entertainment: the tux instantly grabs attention.
  • Where will Jesse and the Bananas be in five years? Playing in front of a million fans a year with multiple Bananas squads, and selling out 40,000-seat venues, predicts Jesse.

Jesse Goldberg-Strassler is Voice of the Lansing Lugnuts and author of The Baseball Thesaurus and the upcoming second edition of The Football Thesaurus, both from August PublicationsKevin Reichard is editor of Ballpark Digest and founder/publisher at August Publications.

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Past Ballpark Digest Editor’s Choice Award For Outstanding Achievement Winners
2018: Ivy at Berlin Place, South Bend Cubs
2017: Redband Rally Campaign, Spokane Indians
2017: National Eclipse Games
2016: Fort Bragg Field
2014: Curtis Granderson Stadium
2011: Cape Cod League’s Spaceball Promotion
2009: The Staff of Roger Dean Stadium
2009: Camelback Ranch-Glendale
2008: MiLB Charities, Texas League

2021 Ballpark Digest Award Winners
2021 Promotion of the Year: The Wonders reunite at Erie SeaWolves game

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