Opening Day of the baseball season offers the chance to reflect on the arrival of spring, the childhood pleasures of skipping school for the ballpark—and, for people like me, who think about creativity and innovation, how hard it can be to change an institution that is in desperate need of reimagination and renewal. Most everyone agrees, as a recent Sports Illustrated analysis made clear, that Major League Baseball games take too long and move too slowly, that the so-called unwritten rules of on-field behavior wind up ruling out fun and spontaneity, and that the rise of analytics has replaced human drama with algorithmic tyranny. No wonder MLB now ranks behind the NFL and the NBA in terms of popularity and star power.
Which is why it was so eye-opening and instructive to make a trip to Savannah, Georgia—far away from the problems of the big leagues—to visit with an entrepreneur who is devising a different future for baseball by rewriting the rules of the game. He’s also developing some intriguing rules for innovation that apply far beyond the diamond.
Jesse Cole is the owner of the Savannah Bananas. The Bananas play in the Coastal Plain League, a 15-team amateur summer league where highly ranked college players hone their skills and showcase their talents in the hopes of being drafted. Cole bought the team in October 2015 when it was known as the Savannah Sand Gnats and functioned as a minor-league affiliate of the New York Mets. As a business, the Gnats were sinking in quicksand. The team generated no buzz and had hardly any fans. A few hundred spectators turned out for home games, which were played at 4,000-seat Grayson Stadium, a legendary ballpark that opened in 1926 and has hosted games played by immortals such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron.
Since Cole bought the team, the Bananas have sold out virtually every game, and there is a 15,000-person waiting list for tickets. There is also a 1,200-name list of people who want to play or work for the team. The Bananas have 1.5 million followers on TikTok, twice as many as the most popular MLB team, and devoted fans who start gathering at the ballpark at 3 PM for games, four hours before first pitch. A feature in USA Today told the stories of fans who traveled to Savannah from Illinois, Indiana, and even Alaska, to see a game. ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted a seven-minute segment to how the Bananas “have become the greatest show in baseball.”
So what explains the soaring popularity of the Bananas in a world where “no one watches baseball anymore?” What have Jesse Cole and his colleagues learned about breathing new life into a dying business that might apply to other businesses? I’d highlight at least four lessons.
A winning business strategy begins with originality
The goal is not to be the best at what lots of others already do, it’s to be the only one who does what you do. It’s hard to overstate the Bananas’ different, distinctive, one-of-a-kind financial model. Tickets to the games are general admission, which is one reason fans line up early. Tickets are also all-inclusive (well, other than beer), which means you get to see a game, eat plenty of hot dogs and peanuts, and not be nickeled-and-dimed for nine innings. Cole has even done away with corporate sponsorships and inside-the-ballpark advertising—no messages on the outfields walls, no logos spray-painted on the field. “No one comes to the ballpark to be sold to or advertised to,” he told me, “so we got rid of it.” Today, 97% of the team’s total revenue comes directly from fans; merchandise sales bring in six times what sponsorships once did.
Even a familiar product can be transformed into an unforgettable experience
Successful organizations create memorable customer encounters. This lesson is at the heart of what happens at Grayson Stadium. The Bananas may have to play by the established rules of baseball on the field, but the team has elevated everything surrounding the game to unimaginable levels of energy and entertainment. Sure, plenty of minor-league baseball teams have fun gimmicks. But the Bananas put on a show. The team has its own pep band, a group of male cheerleaders, and a beloved over-65 female dance team called the Banana Nanas. Cole himself is a huge presence at every game—outfitted in a blinding yellow tux and top hat, greeting fans outside the stadium, leading cheers inside the stadium. “The game has become too long, too slow, too boring, for too many people,” he tells me. No one would apply any of those words to the experience of visiting Grayson Stadium.
If you’re going to put on a show, get everyone into the act
Performances can happen any place where you interact with customers. College players sign up with the Bananas to compete hard in a 55-game season that runs from late May into early August. But even they are performers. Players have walked on stilts to greet fans before games; they’ve worn kilts over their uniforms during games; they sing songs, perform skits, and otherwise show off their personality. A favorite of mine is a locker-room video where a player recites Jonah Hill’s slam-poetry tribute to Cynthia from the movie 21 Jump Street, and fellow players snap their fingers in approval.
Cole says there are “five stages” on which the Bananas organization has an opportunity to perform for its fans—the parking lot, the front plaza to the stadium, the concourses inside the stadium, the grandstand, and on the field—and that the team must deliver something memorable on each stage at every game. There is also a sixth stage, which is year-round conversations with fans. Team personnel make 300,000 thank-you calls annually to customers who buy tickets, order merchandise, and otherwise engage with the organization.
Even the most creative groups have to keep pushing the limits of innovation
The Bananas are constantly rethinking the logic of their success, and this lesson is key to the future of the team and to any organization that wants to keep moving and changing with the times. A few years back, even as the Bananas were shattering records for attendance in the Coastal Plain League, Cole realized that the rules of amateur baseball prevented him from addressing the deeper strategic challenge—the failure of the game itself to adjust to the attitudes and sensibilities of younger audiences and modern times. So he established a professional team, also called the Savannah Bananas, that plays against a rival team that he started, called the Party Animals. The rosters of both teams include former college players and past MLB players, plus guest appearances by the likes of two-time World Series champion pitcher Jake Peavy and Red Sox legend Bill “Spaceman” Lee.
Most importantly, the teams play a new version of baseball called Banana Ball, with nine rules that utterly reshape the game. For example, games have a two-hour time limit. Also, every inning counts; after the top and bottom of an inning, the team with the most runs gets one point, but the runs themselves don’t carry over. There are no walks; after four balls, a batter “sprints” to first base and beyond, and can be tagged out only after all nine players on defense have touched the ball—a rule that leads to wild on-field choreography. Cole compares the professional version of the Bananas to the Harlem Globetrotters, although, unlike the hapless Washington Generals, the Party Animals are allowed to win. Cole has been testing this new business model with a 14-game “World Tour” that brought the Bananas and the Party Animals to Montgomery, Alabama, Daytona Beach, Florida, Kansas City, Kansas, and other cities. Every game thus far has sold out.
I’m not sure any sports league has been more resistant to change than Major League Baseball, with its self-satisfied owners, huge player contracts, and high-stakes TV deals. I’m certain that no baseball team has been more open to change than both the amateur and professional versions of Savannah Bananas, who play far outside the national spotlight.
Perhaps that’s one more lesson in innovation from Cole and his colleagues: Sometimes the most creative ideas emerge in the least-expected places. The very fact that an organization operates on the periphery, outside the bright lights and harsh pressures, creates a freedom to experiment and innovate that is not available to big-time, big-league organizations.
Maybe that’s why MLB Opening Day can feel like a walk down memory lane, and a Savannah Bananas game feels like a glimpse into a possible future.
Bill Taylor is the cofounder of Fast Company and the author, most recently, of Simply Brilliant: How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways. Learn more at williamctaylor.com.