This is the story of a baseball team that was profitable in 2020.
A year ago, that sentence wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows. But after an unprecedented season that saw the minor leagues not play a single game, a quarter of those teams lose their MLB affiliations, and the major leagues declare losses north of $1 billion, a baseball team in the black must be doing something right. But what really should make the rest of the sport sit up and take notes is the fact that the Savannah Bananas made money while defying pretty much every accepted axiom about what it takes to run a successful professional sports operation.
As baseball hurtles toward a seemingly unavoidable labor stoppage this winter, the same dynamics of the 1994 strike are rearing their ugly heads. Regardless of your views on labor, it’s a fight between the desires of billionaire owners and millionaire players, with what’s best for the fans a distant third on the priority list. The same dynamic was in play with the contraction of the minor leagues last year—giving MLB more control and, in theory, providing better facilities for those players still in the system, while eliminating dozens of venues for fans.
Amid this environment, the countervailing approach almost feels insurgent: What if you put the fans first and everything else second?
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Savannah Bananas, but don’t really understand what they are. That’s common. In short, they’re a college wood bat team, a summer club like the ones in Cape Cod, who play in the Coastal Plain League.
Savannah used to be home to the Sand Gnats, a Mets affiliate in the South Atlantic League. During what would end up being the final stretch of the Sand Gnats tenure, they managed to boost attendance from 1,863 per game in 2012 to 1,962 per game in 2015, which was considered a success given their accommodations.
Built in 1926, Grayson Stadium is one of the oldest remaining ballparks in baseball. After numerous failed attempts to convince the city to build a replacement, Sand Gnats ownership bolted for greener pastures in Columbia, South Carolina after the 2015 season. But if an affiliated team couldn’t get a new stadium built, a college wood bat team stood no chance. So, into Grayson moved the Bananas, with a lot stacked against them.
“It’s not a baseball town, it’s a party town,” said Toby Hyde, who was the Sand Gnats broadcaster for their final five seasons in Savannah.
Hyde lists the order of sports fandom in Savannah as Georgia Football, Georgia Football, Georgia Football, then Falcons football, high school football, then everything else. When the then-nameless team was introduced, interest was so low that the team’s bank account bounced a check. Team owners Jesse and Emily Cole sold their house to front the money to keep the operation going, until the name announcement. While local reaction to “Bananas” was mixed, they were an overnight nationwide phenomenon, and by Opening Day, they had a sellout on their hands.
The Bananas’ success story really begins about 240 miles north in Gastonia, North Carolina, where the Coles helped turn around a moribund team drawing 200 fans a night. Another Coastal Plain League member, the Gastonia Grizzlies used the fan-first ideology to become a model franchise, eventually bringing in more than 2,000 fans per game before the Coles took their operation to Savannah.
“They had already kind of shown us their recipe for success in Gastonia,” said Justin Sellers, COO & Commissioner of the CPL. “Their mentality was of one trying to present something different, trying to engage the fans more, make it more fan-friendly.”
If there’s a singular difference in the attitude between the major and minor leagues, it’s the reaction to new ideas that might upend the existing order. The major leagues find ways to say no—no to fans sharing unlicensed content online; no to lifting blackout restrictions for TV viewing; no to more access to the players; until quite recently, no to bat flips, or most anything viewed as an affront to the unwritten rules of the game. Meanwhile, the minor leagues are all about saying yes to anything and everything that might work. And now, in Savannah, that “say yes” attitude is being stretched to its outer limits.
As absurd as many of the personal, off-the-field plotlines were on “Brockmire,” the actual solutions presented to save baseball in a world nearly 15 years from now were actually quite modest and pedestrian: Miking up and adding cameras to players, coming up with outrageous, minor league-esque team names, sharing revenue with players on merchandise. Most of these are already happening, to some degree. What’s happening in Savannah feels more like if someone took every idea on the white board in the “Brockmire” writers’ room and stuffed it into the script.
There’s a breakdancing first base coach. A senior citizen dance team, the Banana Nanas. A pep band that plays live music, like you’d expect from a college football or basketball game. The interns park cars in penguin suits. The ballpark bathrooms have urinal cakes and toilet paper with the rival team’s logo on them. The Bananas put out an ad for a professional high-fiver, and when the only person to respond was a six-year-old who showed up with his mom and started high-fiving people in the office, they hired him.
All of that is true. But so is this—the team is in the midst of an 88-game sellout streak. In a summer college wood bat level of baseball, where the median club among 159 teams nationwide had an average attendance of 828 in 2019, the Bananas brought more than 4,200 fans per game through the turnstiles.
“That’s insane. That’s not kind of nuts, it’s insane,” said Hyde. “I see photos and videos of Grayson with all these people in them, and it’s incredible.”
So, right, the pandemic.
Reports trickled out last summer and fall about pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs in major league front offices from coast to coast, in markets big and small. The threat to minor league team survival was existential. It seemed like no team was safe from the changing budgets, slashed by the pandemic. Except for the Bananas, who didn’t cut pay for a single employee.
Shortly before the pandemic shut down American sports in March, the Bananas announced they were removing all the corporate banners from their ballpark and going ad free. In a sport where outfield wall signs can run anywhere from a couple thousand dollars in the low minors to much, much more than that in the big leagues, this might seem like financial seppuku. Rather than exacerbate their financial situation, though, the lack of signage meant less strain, no sponsors to try to appease over the reduced number of impressions during a pandemic season. It wasn’t just good for the fans, it was good for business.
Still, there were bills to pay. One staff member pointed out the large stash of booze they were sitting on, and that they could sell a popular drink from the ballpark in mason jars, even in the offseason.
A drive-through booze operation? Yes.
An insiders club for those who couldn’t attend games, so they could still watch? Yes.
One additional benefit to being people who say yes whenever possible: When you need to rework your vendor contracts, guess who else is more likely to say yes?
The 15-team Coastal Plain League fielded just seven squads in pandemic-ravaged 2020, with Savannah competing in a three-team pod, much like the American Association model. The Bananas managed to play a full slate with zero COVID cases, attracting 1,000-1,500 fans per night in the limited capacity for which they were allowed. That meant turning away more than 50,000 people who had bought tickets, but offered a successful blueprint of protocols for this month’s tryouts, having already managed a group of players traveling from all over the country to Savannah.
Which led Cole to the thought: Could that open the door to something more than just a college summer league?
Anyone with an appreciation of the history of minor league baseball can see the parallels between the Bananas and the Portland Mavericks, the team owned by Bing Russell that stepped in to fill the void in Oregon in the ’70s when the Portland Beavers left town. While they were part of the affiliated minors, the Mavericks did most everything the unconventional way, putting entertainment first, encouraging the same kind of showmanship the Bananas are advertising. They were riotously successful in ways the Beavers had failed to be, ultimately leading the Pacific Coast League back into Portland a few years later.
But the Bananas’ entertainment off the field isn’t that far removed from what many of the most enterprising minor league teams have implemented in the last decade. Dancing grounds crews are widespread, now, as are promotions that smudge the chalk of the lines of both good sense and common decency. But the one thing that a truly independent team can change that an affiliated one cannot is the game itself.
Enter: The Savannah Bananas Premier Team. As hundreds of previously employed minor leaguers find themselves on the outside of affiliated ball looking in, Savannah is adding a professional team for 2021, even as it sorts out the details of exactly how to play games with such a team. They won’t belong to any league. They’ll have a rival club, the Party Animals, which they’ll also stock with players. They may barnstorm at some point, but the plan for now is to compete against one another, on tour, figuring it out as they go.
“Baseball, unfortunately, has been losing fans, losing support, and now, this past year, hundreds of players are not going to have a chance to play professionally,” said Cole. “This is an answer to that. It’s an answer to making the game more fun, more exciting for fans, and also giving players an opportunity to play more.”
Tryouts are February 20 at Grayson Stadium. Former Oakland Athletics pitcher and current broadcaster Dallas Braden has offered to help pay for hotel rooms for players. Cole says the team has been in contact with a former Cy Young Award-winner about suiting up.
The club will travel not just both teams of players and coaches, but its dance crews, its pep band, the entire entertainment squad—more than 100 people in all. The competition itself will be more like a Harlem Globetrotters game, albeit with an opponent that’s legitimately trying to win. The operation is something closer to a circus than a baseball team. And in 2021, it’s about to be a traveling circus.
Oh, and the team won’t play baseball, exactly.
* * *
They call it BananaBall, though Cole says he didn’t coin the term.
The Bananas’ track record has given them the leeway to get away with things as wild as putting players in kilts for a game, a stunt Sellers points to as the most outrageous thing the league figured out a way to say yes to (by having the players wear sliding pants underneath, both for safety and, uh, family friendliness). But starting last year in a few exhibition games, and this year with their Premier League team, it has meant bending the rules of the game itself. Baseball purists: Cover your eyes.
While Major League Baseball tinkers with limiting mound visits and employing three-batter minimums on relief outings to incrementally pick up the pace of the game, Savannah’s rule adjustments have taken the old game, thrown it on roller skates, and strapped on a jetpack. Not literally, but those advancements might not be out of the question.
“(The MLB rule changes are) so minor that fans don’t even really feel it,” said Cole. “What we’re not afraid to do is test rules that literally the fans can feel immediately and say, ‘I like this,’ or ‘I don’t like this.’”
Each inning is its own contest, and the team with the most runs at inning’s end earns a point. First team to five points wins the game. Seriously.
There’s a hard two-hour time limit. If neither team is at five points yet, the game goes to a pitcher-vs-batter showdown tiebreaker.
No stepping out of the box. No bunting. No mound visits. Oh, and if a fan catches a foul ball on the fly, you’re out.
There’s more. The thing about these rules, or, really, any idea in Savannah, is that if they work, they’ll keep them. If they don’t, they won’t, and they’ll move on to the next idea. The entertainment side has been a sandbox for off-the-field ideas for years, with some admitted flops, like Flatulence Fun Night, replete with whoopie cushions and bean burritos. But the good ideas have largely outnumbered the bad ones. Now, they’re migrating to the field itself.
“We’re constantly experimenting, evolving, changing, adjusting and pivoting,” said Cole.
The CPL was one of the first leagues to adopt the international tiebreaker rule, with a runner starting on second base in extra innings. Now, that’s standard in both major and minor league ball. Who knows what other on-field innovations might matriculate upwards to the top levels of the game?
Maybe BananaBall isn’t the future of baseball. But in the exhibitions last year, according to Cole, not a single fan left early.
For now, the only planned games for the Premier Team are two in Savannah and two in the lone stop on the team’s One City World Tour, in Mobile, Alabama. You can say that it sounds like a joke, and you might even be right. But then again, nearly every idea out of Savannah kind of seems like a joke until it happens, and then you look up and they’ve sold out another game.
It just so happens that this tour stop is in Mobile, another longtime minor league stronghold recently abandoned by its affiliated tenant, when the BayBears packed up and shipped out from Hank Aaron Stadium after the 2019 season to Madison, Alabama to become the Rocket City Trash Pandas. The BayBears were consistently the worst draw in the Southern League, the only team to draw fewer than 100,000 fans per season (roughly 1,500 per game), a mark they failed to hit in each of their final five years.
If there was another market like Savannah ready to embrace a different approach to the game, it just might be Mobile.
Make no mistake—Jesse Cole is a baseball guy. He pitched at Wofford and was starting to attract some professional interest before a shoulder surgery ended his career. While the Bananas’ antics might offend some of the old guard, Cole absolutely wants to make baseball better.
“If you look at attendance and how much it’s declined over the years, if you look at the average baseball fan, there’s still a challenge,” he said.
While Minor League Baseball’s attendance had stayed flat in recent years, Major League Baseball’s steady attendance decline has been masked by its record revenues, which lean increasingly on television deals and corporate sponsorships. The numbers are clear, though, and stark: MLB attendance fell every year from 2012-2019, down 8.5 percent in all over that span and 13.8 percent off its 2007 peak.
Attendance hasn’t been the issue in Savannah. But Cole’s next challenge is getting the full buy-in from professional players to create something truly new.
“How can we get the players even more involved, and can it work out where the players from all over the country want to be a part of this on a year-round basis?”
If you’ve seen the team’s Old Town Road video, or, really any of their videos, you can see the infectiousness of the energy making its way to the field. Georgia Southern professor Curtis Sproul even observed the team during the 2020 season and produced a study supporting the idea that the fun atmosphere actually leads to improved performance on the field.
As baseball reckons with its future, it stands to learn plenty about what’s happening in Savannah, where the players wear all-yellow uniforms and dance between innings in an ancient ballpark, with no ads, where the staff has remained fully employed, and the games sell out every night.
“That’s kind of what minor league baseball should be,” said Hyde. “It should be goofy all the time off the field, with decent baseball on the field.”
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