Imagine a baseball game where there are no walks, no mound visits, no batters stepping out of the batter's box and a two-hour time limit. Imagine a baseball game where the players dress in kilts, introduce themselves before at-bats, use a caddy to map out their swing and flip water bottles after scoring a run.
This game is called Bananaball, and it's played by no other than the Savannah Bananas. Take one look at their social media and you'll see they do things a bit differently at Grayson Stadium in Georgia. They make baseball a riot.
A lot of people love baseball in a traditional sense, and I used to. But, I'd be remiss not to say the long, boring aspects of the game weakened my enjoyment. This isn't a problem for the Bananas. No, the Bananas only care about putting on a show for the fans. When I say show, I don't mean high-quality baseball on the field. I mean a Cirque De Soleil kind of show. Baseball is the stage, but the players are entertainers in reality.
I've been fascinated by the Bananas since discovering them last summer. So, I was thrilled to chat with the man whose wardrobe is exclusively a yellow tuxedo, Bananas owner Jesse Cole, about the craziness that is the Savannah Bananas.
Bananaball: The Sped-Up, Electrifying Version of America's Pastime
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At 23, most of us are still young, dumb kids barely functioning in the real world. At 23, Jesse Cole was the general manager of a minor league baseball team in Gastonia, North Carolina.
"How do you get a job as a 23-year old GM?," Cole asked. "Well, the team was one of the worst teams in the entire country. I took over a team that had $268 in the bank account and only 200 fans coming to the games. For ten years, I experimented there. As we went from lowest in the country in attendance to fourth in the country in attendance and started selling out games, my wife and I kept looking at new opportunities."
It was in this role that he first set up the blueprint for the Bananas. And, it was at a game where the path toward the Bananas started formulating.
"After I proposed to [my wife] in Gastonia in front of a sold-out crowd, she surprised me with a trip to Savannah," Cole said. "We went to the minor league ballpark and fell in love with it. Old, ton of history, but they were the worst in attendance in minor league baseball every year. The minor league team left because they couldn't get any support and we said 'Oh, can we put a team in Savannah?' So we convinced the city of Savannah to have a college summer team come there and that's how it started."
In a way, Cole's wife can be credited for starting the Bananas. For that we say, thank you, Mrs. Cole.
While the Bananas started as a team for college players and they continue to play in the Coastal Plains League, they have a second team dedicated entirely to Bananaball. Now, what is Bananaball other than a really cool name?
"We looked at all the things that slowed down baseball and the first thing we did was put a big constraint right at the beginning -- it's a two-hour time limit," Cole said. "Every game has to happen in two hours and batters can't step out of the batter's box, there are no walks, there are no mound visits, walks are sprints -- so if the batter walks, they have to go full speed around the bases and the defensive team has to throw the ball to every position player before it's live. It turns the walk into something exciting. Batters can steal first. If fans catch a foul ball, it's an out, which happened several times on the tour. Those type of things keep the game fast, exciting and entertaining. Our first evey Bananaball game was nine innings and 99 minutes. We had one this past summer that was nine innings in an hour and 48 minutes. So, we have to have fast games because it makes it more exciting for the fans."
Here's a full game to get a sense of it in action.
Yes, the game is streamlined on the field and is more than enough to make the Bananas unique. However, what's catapulted them into the public eye is their entertainment value. Seriously, name a gimmick and the Bananas have probably tried it. We're talking at-bats in stilts, playing football in between at-bats, riding horses, recreating viral Tik Toks, doing a cartwheel before throwing a pitch, you name it. Even the umpires join in on the fun.
But, the Bananas are most known for their dances. Yep, to play on the Bananas you need to have smooth feet in addition to a smooth bat because you perform choreographed dance numbers every single game.
The players aren't the only entertainment, though. There are also mascots, a pep band, male cheerleading team, breakdancing coaches and many more to make your time at Grayson Stadium a blast. It's why they've become baseball's most fun attraction and sell out every game. It's why there's a waitlist of 50,000 clamoring to see the Bananas play. It's why they have their own show on ESPN+. It's why they're the Harlem Globetrotters of baseball.
Sure, this is all fantastic, but for Cole, the Bananas have and always will be about the fans.
"Fans First": The Savannah Bananas Motto
The Bananas are seeing tons of success now by separating themselves as an all-age entertainment event, but the road here was a grind.
"When we first came to Savannah, we only sold a handful of tickets in our first few months," said Cole. "By January 2016, we over-drafted our account, we're about to miss payroll and we're out of money. My wife and I had to sell our house, empty out our savings account, and we're sleeping on an air bed. It was tough, and we had to convince enough people to come out, so we went all in on the entertainment."
Clearly, there is no other baseball team on Earth that knows entertainment like the Bananas, but their home field, Grayson Stadium, is designed to be a fan's paradise. For starters, Grayson Stadium is an ad-free ballpark. All those ads you see covering the walls of Major League Baseball stadiums are nowhere to be found at Grayson.
"We were crazy," Cole joked. "I mean, it was two weeks before the pandemic [when we made the decision]. We didn't know what was going to happen. We threw away hundreds of thousands of dollars with that decision. But, it's something we believe in."
"Everything we do is fans first," he continued. "So, I believe that no one comes to a stadium to be sold to, marketed to or advertised to. Most teams put ads all over their ballpark to generate revenue. I'm not interested in generating revenue, I'm interested in generating fans. If you create enough fans, the revenue takes care of itself. We made that decision and went all in. Go two years later, and our merchandise is close to being 10 times what we did in total advertising."
When Cole says fans first, he means it. Part of his motto includes all-inclusive tickets. So, when you buy a ticket to Bananas game, you essentially have an all-access pass to everything Grayson Stadium has to offer.
"Again, everything we do, every decision we make, we ask if the fan's first," he said. "That's why every game in Savannah, all the tickets are all-inclusive. You come to a Savannah game with all your burgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, soda, water, popcorn and dessert included. There are no ticket fees, no convenience fees. We pay your taxes. Literally, a $20 ticket is a $20 ticket. A $30 shirt is a $30 shirt."
To every stadium that sells $15 beers, take notes.
And guess what? They're not done! Cole has goals to put a speakeasy, brewery and an Airbnb in Grayson Stadium in the future. Don't be surprised if a rollercoaster pops up, either. While all the amenities make Grayson Stadium a phenomenal place to see a Bananas home game, it's not the only place you can see them play. The Bananas went on a seven-city "World Tour" this past spring. The number of stops is only expected to grow next year. So, be on the lookout to see a guy doing splits in the batter's box and huge dance parties on the diamond in a city near you.
"Changing the Game" is a term thrown around quite a bit, but the Bananas are living up to it. They're making sports fun, which is the whole point.
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