America’s favorite pastime has just gotten more fun, thanks to Savannah Bananas! If you have not heard about them or been to their show yet, you are in for a treat! In this episode, you get a sneak peek as owner, the man in the yellow tux, Jesse Cole returns to the show and lets us in on what it’s like to have sold out every game since the first season and have a waitlist for tickets that’s over 60,000. He also shares insights on what it takes to bring together a team of 120 people to put on an inning like no other and the importance of owning up to mistakes, and how those mess-ups motivate them to be better for their fans every time. So tune in and be inspired by their dedication to the sport, the fans, and the fun!
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Looking In On The Savannah Bananas With Jesse Cole
Welcome to another episode. My guest is the amazing Jesse Cole for his second appearance on the episode. On a high level, Jesse is the Co-owner with his wife, Emily, of The Savannah Bananas Baseball Team, who are right in the midst, I’m going to say, the early stages of blowing up. The last time that Jesse and I talked on this show was a few years ago. It was in April 2020. It was Episode 18 of this show called The Three Loves of The Savannah Bananas. I recommend everybody go and check that out because that’s the whole background on the team and how it came to be, the origin story as we like to call it nowadays.
I’m telling you, Jesse, I went back and reviewed it. Not for the first time. I’ve reviewed it many times because I’m telling you that it was still, to date, the most enjoyable conversation interview I’ve had. I laughed pretty much nonstop and I still do every time I listen to it. Let me set the context and I’m going to ask you to catch us up on things. The time span between April 2020, when you were last on the show, and now August 24th, 2022, that we’re having this conversation.
To say that things have changed for you and for The Savannah Bananas is perhaps the understatement of the century. One of the last questions that I asked you was pretty much back in the early days of COVID. I asked you what your vision is for the future of the enterprise. You said, “We’re going to bring the show on the road. We’re going to do a world tour, even if it’s a one-city world tour.”
Now, that’s what you’ve done. Your new book Fans First came out. Your show about the Bananas called Bananaland came out on ESPN+, the first episode, which was phenomenal. You’ve got over 3 million followers on TikTok, which didn’t exist the last time we talked, as far as I remember. Catch me up. What has this ride been like for you? Where are you now? Where you’re going? Tell us the story.
It’s crazy and Steve, thank you for all the kind words. I had a lot of fun. I remember that episode so much. As I shared with you, your book made a huge impact on me, Love is Just Damn Good Business. I’m glad we were able to talk about that before. Everything’s changed, but everything stayed the same. I’m still a kid trying to make his dad proud. Now, I have three kids. My wife and I are foster parents. We have two foster daughters and a baby. Our life has been crazy over the last few years, but crazy good.
Nothing’s changed as far as our business in the sense of who we are and what we stand for. We are Fans First through and through. It’s who we are. It’s what we talk about. It’s every decision we make as Fans First and we have a big vision. We dream big. When we started sharing our vision more in 2020, during that challenging time, you didn’t want to be an entertainment business, in a live entertainment business during COVID, as you said.
We said, “We’re going to try it. We’re going to figure it out and get through the mess to get to the grade.” Fast forward now, we’ve done the one-city world tour in 2021 and went to Mobile, Alabama. We sold 7,000 tickets in 24 hours and then we went to seven cities. In a year, we sold 70,000 tickets. We sold out every stadium we went to, including 10,000-seat Rickwood in Birmingham, the oldest ballpark in America. ESPN came with us for three months, covered our whole behind-the-scenes and the first episode premiered on ESPN to then go on ESPN+.
We’ve had games on ESPN and now, 4 million social media followers. We announced we’re going all-in on Banana Balls. We’ve got calls from five major league teams that want us to bring Banana Ball to their stadium. We’ve even got calls from Cooperstown in the Hall of Fame. It’s been wild and the team has grown considerably, but we still talk about the same things. We still believe the same things. We still have the time of our life. We’re surrounded by energy givers. People that give energy and all about what we’re doing. It’s been a fun ride.
For the uninitiated who have not yet been exposed to the experience that is the Savannah Bananas, give us a high level of what the team is about. I know it’s hard to capture in a few words, but you’re a great communicator. I know you can.
Since day one, we have put on our website, “We make baseball fun.” We’re trying to create the greatest show in sports and be the most fun team in baseball. Our players do choreograph dances every game. We have players that come up to bat with their bats on fire. We have players in stilts. We have players that celebrate crazy celebrations. After they score a run, the whole team runs through the crowd, high-fiving everyone. We do more dancing and more singing than any sports team should ever do.
We have a male cheerleading team, the Mananas. We have a break-dancing coach. We have a senior citizen dance team called the Banana Nanas. Everything we do is to make baseball fun and we’ve gone all in on that. We have idea palooza sessions almost every day. Talking about, “What can we do now, this game, this week that we’ve never done before on a baseball field?” We have players now that are practicing right in front of me before our games on ESPN. They’re literally practicing catching balls now while doing backflips.Jesse Cole @yellowtuxjesse joins me on the podcast to take us behind the scenes of The Savannah Bananas @thesavbananas. Don't miss this! Click To Tweet
They’re the outfielders. They are working on doing backflips and catching it, which looks extremely dangerous, but one guy can do it pretty well. They’re trying to have fun. That’s how we started the game as kids. Steve, I think you’ve seen this and you know this, but when you have fun, you perform better and fun wins for us. These guys have so much fun that they play better and put on a great show.
You folks have literally redefined the rules of the game in that experience that you called Banana Ball. Quickly, what are the nine rules of the Banana Ball?
Are there still nine or have you added more?
We amended it a little bit. We haven’t added much, but if you confuse, you lose. Keep it simple. Nine rules are enough. I don’t want to have 37 rules and a whole rule book. This was back in 2017-2018. We started selling our games from sleeping on an air bed to selling about games, building our waitlist, which is crazy at over 80,000 now for tickets. We were watching our fans. It doesn’t make sense. I don’t understand it, to be honest with you, but our fans are constantly leaving games early. We said, “What if we made a faster game?” We tested this in 2018, even before we talked.
The rules are every inning counts. If you win the inning, you get a point. There are no blowouts. Every inning matters and we have walk-off celebrations after every inning. There’s a two-hour time limit. At two hours, the game is over. You can’t step out of the batter’s box, so hitters have to get ready to hit. If you step out of the batter’s box, it’s a strike. There’s no bunting. Bunting sucks. If you bunt, you’re thrown out of the game.
That has happened before. A guy didn’t know it. He got thrown out of the game. There are no walks. Walks are boring. Think about this. We’re playing an athletic sport. This play is called a walk. Walk on over to first base. We eliminated that. The walks are called sprints. Now, on a fourth ball, the umpire goes, “Ball four, sprint,” and the hitter takes off full speed running to as many bases he can get to while the catcher has to throw the ball to every player on the field before it’s live.
Quick aside on that, the first 2 or 3 were like home runs. No one knew what to do. Now, it’s like this amazing weave where all the guys come in and we’re throwing guys out at second. It’s the most exciting play in baseball. Batters can steal first. Pet pitchers. Throw strikes. Do you want to throw a ball in the dirt with no counts? Steal first. There are no mound visits, no slow walk out to the mound. That’s boring. Get rid of that. Finally, end of the game is a one-on-one showdown. Pitcher versus hitter and there’s one fielder. The hitter has to score. It’s like a penalty kick situation. That determines the tie. That’s where we are now.
Let’s talk about behind-the-scenes a little bit because it sounds simple. “We did a one-city world tour and then we took it a whole bunch of places.” You took the entire enterprise on the road. You had the Bananas, the team that they play against, the Party Animals. Is that right? Did you travel? It’s like what the Harlem Globetrotters used to do with the Washington Generals. You had this whole enterprise that you took on the road. It seems to me that transition from playing in Savannah, even in the incredible different, fun and entertaining way you did with the rules of Banana Ball, etc., going from that to taking the whole enterprise on the road is a major deal, to say the least.
It’s a radical leap.
Tell us about that decision process and what the experience was like.
Herb Kelleher, when he started Southwest Airlines a few years into running Southwest Airlines, a reporter asked him, “What’s your business strategy?” He thought about it for a second and he said, “It’s called doing things,” which I love. Do and learn. Our whole mindset was we had no idea how to do that. I’m flattered by what people mean by the compliment of the Harlem Globetrotters. When the Globetrotters started, they changed basketball. They literally fundamentally changed basketball.
They sold out Madison Square Garden two times in a day. They played in front of 75,000 people in Berlin. They had Wilt Chamberlain play for them. They were as big as they got. Unfortunately, it’s changed a little bit since then, but we’re a big difference in the Globetrotters. The Globetrotters travel with 30 people. We travel with 120. It’s completely unscalable, but I believe sometimes, you need to do the unscalable to do the scalable. We bring our entire pep band. A twelve-person pep band comes on the road with us wherever we go because we want the experience to be so remarkable, so magical that we open the stadium gates with a march.
Our entire pep band, our male cheerleader team, our break dancing and coaches, our players on stilts, the player, we did this whole march in front of the 3,000, 4,000 fans that were waiting in line hours before the game to set the tone for the experience. It makes no sense, but when you look at it, it makes complete sense.When you have fun, you perform better. Click To Tweet
We’re trying to create an experience where we spend $0 on marketing, but we spend everything on the experience. We create these raving fans that are buying tickets all over the world, buying merchandise, and hundreds of orders every single day all over the world. I believe in any business, you should focus more on creating raving fans than creating sales, revenue and profits. We don’t talk about that, but we talk every day on what we can do to create fans. That’s what we take on the road.
You say you brought your pep band with you but didn’t you also bring everybody that touches the fans in any way, like the people that sell the tickets and concession people? Did you do all of the above?
The model we made is as the venue does the food and bev. They do all the food and bev experience. We do everything as far as the tickets, the merchandise and the show. We have all our ticket takers in full banana costumes, ripping your banana-shaped tickets and scanning your banana tickets. We’re obsessed and fanatical about every touch point. We’re involved in that and the DJs, the announcers, the host, everybody.
When you’re in Savannah, you have total control over that. When you decided to take the show on the road, the decision that you made was, “We still have to have control over the entire experience, every touch point.” You did as much as you could in that.
It’ll be fun for any of your viewers and readers to stay tuned to episodes 3, 4 and 5 of Bananaland when we go to these different markets and stadiums and we give them the biggest crowds they’d ever had. They realize that it’s not like hundreds of people coming in. It’s thousands in the first twenty minutes. They want a beer, ice cream and food. Pure chaos ensues. In other stadiums where they told us what their number was for their crowd and it was dramatically lower. We’re taking down sponsor signs so people could see around the fence, around the field. We learn so much. I truly believe you’ve got to get through the mess to get to the great.
When we first did all you can eat here, Steve, the first night, it was a disaster. In Savannah, every ticket’s all-inclusive, all your burgers, hotdogs, chicken sandwiches, soda, water, pop and dessert. It was literally 2 to 3 hours for someone to get a burger. It was the worst experience you could ever have ever but now with 95% of our fans show up for every game, which redemption is unbelievable and they come in.
We had this last game on a Saturday night. We had 3,000 people in the stadium in the first 30 minutes. They all went to eat and they all got fed within five minutes. If you have a vision of what the best can be, you have to be willing to fight through it and persist and have the grit to get through when it’s bad. If you believe that vision is better and that’s what we had to do with pretty much everyone on the road as well as here in Savannah.
An initial messy execution of a great idea often ends right there.
If it weren’t that, you have somebody go, “Let’s not do that again.” We upset fans.
You folks said, “No, it’s still a great idea. We screwed up and how we implemented it, so let’s fix it.”
The first banana ball game we had was ridiculous. As I said, walks were home runs. No one knew where to throw the ball. They throw the ball in the outfield. The outfield would throw in the infield and the guy running around the base. This is the dumbest rule you’ve ever seen. Now it might be the most exciting play in the game. You learn. We’ve learned that is one of our secret powers.
We do between 5 to 10 brand new things every single night on our field that has never happened before in a baseball field. I say 5 to 10 and say that, “Jesse, you always say 5 to 10 interviews. Look at the green.” On our script, green is not quite right. We haven’t done it before. We’re doing between 10 to 15 every night. We’ve even had nights we’ve done almost twenty things we’ve never done before. Eighteen of those twenty will fail miserably, but there might be two that are gold. If you find that gold, you’re going to get better than anyone else in the industry.
Don’t your fans love to participate in the things that fail also?
You either have success or you have a story. We have a lot of stories every night at our ballpark.When you’re confused, you lose, so keep it simple. Click To Tweet
I’m trying to imagine because I’ve yet to experience a bananas game. Knowing the story, as I’m sure your fans do, to come to the show, to come to the game, knowing that you folks are trying new things all the time, I’m going to be on the lookout for new things that don’t work. That would be special. Who lets their customers in on that experience? Every company tries things and screws up, there’s shame associated with it. Instead, you folks are saying, “We’re going to try that. We’re going to screw it up and we’re going to have a great time in the process and you’re a part of it, fan.”
Yes, and they get to see it. I think people like to tell those stories, “If I was there when they tried to do this and it’s failed.” It’s like the living piñata. When we put a person in a costume and had kids with bats hit them and throw candy. That didn’t go well. The first ever horse head race, where we put kids in horse heads and we had them race around the infield but we realized they couldn’t see out of the horse head. One went in the upper right field, one went against a wall and it delayed the game for five minutes. They had no idea what they were doing. They loved those ideas.
There are ones every single night. For me, I’ll be honest, I struggle with it. I need to take your mindset better and to say, “I struggle with it because I want everything to be so good.” I watched like when we did Messy Baby. We got three babies and we bought baby chairs and everything. We put a ton of food on there. We said, “All right, go.” They looked at the food. Not one baby touched it. It was the most boring promotion we’ve ever had. I didn’t even know what to commentate. I was sitting there. I was like, “All right, let’s go.”
I’m just hoping. I’m out there waiting for it to dry, but you have to embrace that. I think you’re right. As the fan, you chuckle and laugh and get to your next at-bat. When you do so many things every night, I got to remember that they’re not necessarily going to remember the last one. They’re going to remember the next one.
Jesse, you’re pointing out an interesting paradox in this whole experimentation thing, which is the reason you’re so dedicated. Tell me if I’m wrong about this. You’re so dedicated to that experimentation because you have an exceptionally high standard. You want it to be a perfect experience. That desire to create a perfect experience means that there’s imperfection along the way. You have to simultaneously have that high standard for perfection and the willingness to see it messy. When you say, I look at it and I go like, “That doesn’t feel good,” but that’s the nature of the beast.
I’ve learned a lot from the Grateful Dead and Dave Matthews Band. I never got to listen to the Dead, but their business model of improvisation. The same thing with Dave Matthews Band and the fans. Many bands have a new album and they go play the same songs over and over again, at the same set lists, the same times. To me, they’re doing a disservice to your fans at that moment.
For instance, I realized I put myself, “I need to be the biggest fan of the Bananas.” If I’m ever bored for a moment, then I expect our fans will be bored. If I’m doing the same things, “Here comes Pie Your Dad, here comes the Dizzy Bat Race,” all these normal things that people do, then I’m getting bored. The fans are getting bored.
Did you ever watch the Imagineering Documentary on Disney+? It’s fascinating. It’s called Imagineering. I think it’s a six-episode on Disney+. It opens with showing Walt Disney walking the orange groves at Anaheim and saying, “This is where I want Disneyland.” It shows how they built all their parks. One of the Imagineers was interviewed and he said, “We want to create a ride. When you go on it for the twentieth time, you see something you never saw before.”
I was fascinated by that. What we try to create a show is that you got to come twenty times and you’re seeing something brand new every single time. That’s true for businesses. You got to be able to consistently show up, but you also got to continue to say, “What am I inventing to make a better experience for our fans? What am I innovating? What am I bringing to the table to get them to want to keep coming back for more?”
You mentioned the Grateful Dead. Let’s say I’ve seen more than one Dead concert. The thing about them was, every show was different and some of them were terrible. The last time I saw the Dead was in Berkeley. It was like watching Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. They were like two old guys at a music store trying out the equipment. They had different effects and all that. I got bored. The point is that messiness sometimes doesn’t come together. You folks, it sounds like you have such a strong framework that you can try new things and it’s messy, but the entire experience is still going to be extraordinary.
You play enough of your hits. I know Dave Matthews. You know you’re going to get a few of their best jam songs no matter what set it is, and no matter what, you’re going to get. That brings it all together. Everybody’s open for one great moment. We know we’re going to get the entire sold-out crowd dancing, Hey Baby. We know we’re going to get the whole stadium singing off against each other.
We know in the seventh inning, instead of Take Me Out To The Ball Game, we’re going to have every fan of the whole stadium take their phone out and put the flashlight and go back and forth as they sing Yellow by Coldplay. The whole stadium is singing Yellow. You’re laughing at it, but that’s like an emotional goosebump moment. You’re laughing at our one serious real moment. This is hilarious.
Those are the moments and then people leave. At the end of the night, no matter what, we could lose, it could be rain, we could play terrible. This happened organically in our one-city world tour. The band was playing for an hour and they were exhausted. Fans wouldn’t leave. Finally, the tuba player, by himself, started playing the opening deeds to Stand By Me. I remember this happened in Mobile, Alabama. I took my phone out because I was blown away when I was watching.Sometimes, you need to do the unscalable to do the scalable. Click To Tweet
All of a sudden, he started playing the opening beat to Stand By Me and I watched the band, the players on both teams, the cast and fans put their arms around each other. They started singing Stand By Me. I was so blown away that now every night, that’s our kiss goodnight. After they play in the Plaza for 30-plus minutes, all the players they’re signing autographs, a huge circle forms. Everyone puts their arms around each other and we sing Stand By Me together.
No matter what happens. No matter how many mistakes. No matter how many errors. No matter what happens, we come together at the end for that moment. You talk about love. There’s a lot of love at that moment. That’s how you leave. You feel like you were part of something. I know we’re going to deliver that no matter what.
That started as a spontaneous thing from the tuba player into being a ritual and a tradition.
At the moment, yes.
A couple of things I’m thinking. One is I would love that individual leaders would take this message to heart for themselves. In other words, if we could all adopt that mindset that brings that expectation of perfection and the willingness to screw it up in public so that everybody can see us screw it up and everybody can help us make it better. Everybody can see that we all do this. We should all do this. We all screw up. That’s part of being human. Many leaders are concerned about appearing to be perfect because they’re afraid it’s going to affect their perception of competence.
Can I jump on that?
I spend most of my time on LinkedIn and our teams spend most of the time on Tiktok, YouTube, all the Bananas, but I spend it on LinkedIn. It’s as much for me. I write five times a week. I write for clarity and lessons that I learned. I have lessons of learning. I spent my time there. One of the posts that got the most traction, hundreds of thousands of views, I’ve been fortunate like you to get the opportunity to speak all over the country in front of. I pinch myself, billion-dollar companies, big crowds. I got hired by a college to speak at their college.
This was right after COVID and they gave me the entire auditorium. It was a huge auditorium, 1,500, 2,000 people in the auditorium. It’s my time to speak and the host comes up, “We’re going to give it a little more time for a few more people to come.” I go, “It’s okay.” He’s like, “No, we’re going to give it a little bit more time.” He gave ten more minutes. He goes, “We got to go. I’m so sorry.” He apologized to me and I looked out and I saw it. I go, “Can you do me a favor? Can you take pictures for me while I’m on stage with this crowd?”
I took pictures. Steve, there were 27 people in the auditorium. It was a 2,000-seat auditorium. I gave my full speech. I gave full energy. I had dancing. I had singing as I have in every single show. I went all out and the 27 people, I hope they had a good time. I shared that on LinkedIn and I shared the picture of nobody there. For all the speakers, people are going in front, they were so appreciative of that. I shared the lessons that I learned. I go, “Every game is someone’s first game.” It is what we tell ourselves here at the Bananas.
There were 27 people that might’ve been the first time hearing that story. You could have made an impact with one person. How do you treat that? You got to be willing as a leader to share, “Everyone’s posturing. I’m sitting in front of millions of people. I’m doing this. I got a bestseller book.” You got a bestseller in a weird category. That’s like the weirdest category ever for one day.
Let’s be honest. Anyways, everyone postures. Show the things that don’t go well. I’m very intentional. When I see something that it didn’t go well, I want to show it because that’s where people can learn the most. You learn more from those experiences, but leaders aren’t willing enough to share that because they feel that they have to be at this level. The greatest leader shares the challenges.
Your LinkedIn presence and posts are phenomenal. What I’m hearing you say is that you’re writing those posts, you personally.
I write every single post on LinkedIn.Every game is someone’s first game. Click To Tweet
That was a question that I had for you because I’m reading your stuff pretty much every day and thinking, “Is he doing this? Either he’s doing this or he’s got a great ghostwriter writing this shit for him.” Folks, if you’re not following Jesse on LinkedIn, you have to. This is the word that kept coming up for me as I looked at your stuff. It’s generous. You’re very generous. Generous with what you’re learning, with your experience and we all benefit from it. It is pretty extraordinary and it makes me feel deeply deficient in a way.
I don’t see that. You got a bunch of books behind you. How you view things is how you do things. I think the reality is that I view everything as a learning experience. When I will see something like something in the Party Animal’s locker room or something out here on the field, I have a lens to see what is the lesson that I learned from that and that I can share with others that will help me. Great leaders are repeaters. They share the things.
I see a lens in certain ways I’d probably want to see it. That’s teaching. That’s also helping me be more firm in my beliefs, which then helps spread and is more contagious. The best thing I see, Steve, I think great leaders, great organizations, if they or other people on their staff do an interview or do a post or do something and they hear the same things that they preach, it’s amazing.
Emily called me and she goes, “Jesse, you have to listen to Coach Gill on Tyler’s podcast. I thought it was you. He was literally saying, ‘Whatever’s normal, do the exact opposite. We have to get attention and you have to get their eyes and ears before we get their hearts.’ I’m like, he’s like you. I think he even said how you do things is how you do things. I was blown away.” He’s hearing it. He’s seeing and he’s like, “That’s great if you’re all on the same page and the same path,” most importantly.
Speaking of social media, your social media team, particularly the ones that are handling TikTok and the videos on TikTok, are exceptional.
The last time we talked, I asked you, where should people go to find out about the Savannah Bananas and see some of what you do? You had the website and all that, which was great, but TikTok captures the essence and highlights the players and does it in such a creative way and tapping into all the trending stuff. Hilarious stuff.
Your team, most people think about a baseball team, they think of the baseball team. Your team is, again, touching every part of the experience, including how you folks present yourself to the world and the experience that you give to people, whether or not they’re sitting at the stadium watching a game. You’re all pretty young, with a couple of exceptions.
I’m the oldest.
You’ve got a couple of older players.
Bill Lee, yes. We have a 75-year-old Red Sox Hall of Famer who’s doing great. He will continue to pitch for us in the future. We are a very young staff. The episode one of Bananaland, which premiered on ESPN too, he said, “Kara, our marketing director, said we’re a bunch of kids running a baseball team.” That’s cool, and in essence, it is. I think to answer your non-question there, I would go into the point that it takes a lot to have a process to creativity.
You need to have constraints to foster creativity. I had our whole entire young marketing video team watch the Saturday Night Live documentary on how they go from Monday pitch session to Saturday, a complete live show. We developed our own Bananas creative. On Mondays, we have our OTT meetings, over the top ideas. What are we going to do as far as scoring celebration, hit or walk-ups or trick pitches? All of that. 322 is our crazy dance in the middle of the game. That gets lots of traction. What are we going to do there? They’re doing some crazy things in front of me now, which is why they’re practicing things in front of me now.
Can you describe what you’re saying?
One guy is on top of another guy. I think they’re trying to do a hitting entrance, but they want to get a coat over him. It’s like a tall guy and then he comes out and there’s a guy underneath him. I don’t understand it. We’ll see what they’re trying to do. Our practices are very different, but we do rehearsals. At 2:00 on game days, we have our entertainment meeting then we have an hour and a half of rehearsals before we even take batting practice.
It’s very heavy on entertainment, but we have table reads. We do script ideas. We do a live rehearsal in front of a VIP group where we watch how they react to see. Should we change this? Are they putting up their cameras, their phones or videotape? Are they laughing or are they not into it? We make adjustments. It’s very Saturday Night Live. I think you need to have a process based on ideas. Steve, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think companies and businesses spend enough time consciously, and deliberately focusing on ideas.The greatest leader shares their challenges. Click To Tweet
Let’s not forget that amongst all of that, these guys are damn good ballplayers.
That’s the surprise.
It is. First of all, having the vision that you could take that entertainment and athleticism and put it together is one thing, but then to execute on it and find those people that can fill those roles is amazing. My favorite moment in that first episode of Bananaland, and tell me if I was perceiving this accurately because it’s hard to tell when things are edited and all that. You go through the whole process of selecting the team, people coming from for auditions, basically.
You select the final team and you have the final team together. Coach Bern is given a pep talk to the new team and he says, “Let’s remember, we’re all expendable. We’re all replaceable, myself included.” You looked at him and he said, “Why are you looking at me?” You said something like, “They all made the team. I’m proud of these guys.” There was that little dynamic tension that says, “I don’t think this is the time to tell them they are replaceable when they just made the team.” Did I perceive that accurately?
Me and Berns, I love him. He’s crazy, but there were a lot of unique interactions between us because I was very focused. These guys just made the team. They traveled all over the country and I want to celebrate that and embrace that. He opens with, “You’re all replaceable.” I was shocked. I was looking at him and he caught me. He was like, “Why are you looking at me?”
I was like, “I’m proud of these guys. They just made the team.” He goes, “I understand. We’re climbing a mountain, Jesse.” I go, “I get it. Let’s get to that later.” You never know where the character like him, what he’s going to say, but you know where the heart is. The interactions between him and me throughout the show is very strong and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
He reminds me of, it’s like, everybody’s got that one friend who always has that crazy look in their eye that’s willing to do anything and you never know what’s going to happen next. Very relatable on that level.
It scares me considerably. Walt Disney wants to have control over the experience. It’s like, “I’m very worried and nervous what Berns is going to do.” That was part of a learning experience for me.
This is similar to the question I asked you at the end of our last conversation together. As you sit back, given everything that’s happening now, when I talk about you guys to people who haven’t, this has been my experience. When I ask people if they’ve heard of the Savannah Bananas, it used to be, “No, who’s that?” As time goes on, it’s like, “I’ve seen them on TikTok. Yeah, I have.” There are still a few people that say, “It sounds familiar. I’m not quite sure.” What I’ve been telling people is, “Mark my words, these guys will be a household name. They will be a household name.”
I have no doubt about that from the outside looking in. This was before you guys took it on the road and before you have the Bananaland show and all of that. From the outside looking in, that seems pretty obvious to me. Two questions. One is, in the midst of all of this, do you ever look around at the full stadium, at the craziness that’s happening on the field, the way people are responding to it? Do you ever ask yourself, “What the hell happened? How the hell did we get here?”
I think in a different frame, yes.
What is the frame?
On April 1st, we went to West Palm. We played at the Major League Spring Training Home of the Astros in the nationals. This was an 8,000-seat stadium. The Astros were still in town, so they played the day game. All of these guys’ stars were in the lineup. They drew 1,000 fans for the game. That night, we drew 8,000. It was the largest crowd the stadium ever had, 7,000 more than the Astros. My dad came down for that trip. After the game, I go, “I can’t believe what we did.” When we played in Kansas City, we sold 10,000 tickets in sixteen minutes. The fans rushed the gates early and it was a mob scene. It was like straight out of a crazy concert. It was scary, to be honest with you.
At the end of the night, it was one of the best game finishes. Every fan stayed until the end and didn’t want to leave. My dad was there too. I hugged him and got emotional. They had the cameras on me, of course, so I got emotional because the first question ESPN asked, “Is your dad proud of you?” Come on, do you got to go there? I’m still that kid trying to make my dad proud.How you view things is how you do things. Click To Tweet
I see myself as a kid who was bat boy for the Red Sox when I was five years old. I shared that dream to sell up Fenway park. I see in a couple of years taking my dad on the field and looking around and saying, “Dad, look what we did.” That fires me up because I had a dream of playing professional baseball but what we’re doing, I think makes a much bigger impact.
There’s no question. How could he not be proud of you? How has he expressed that to you? Has he said, “I’m proud of your son?” What are some of the words that he’s shared with you in response to all of this? If you don’t mind sharing.
He says that now. It’s funny. My parents were divorced. I was the only child. My father fought to get custody because custody goes to the mother, but my mother had some serious challenges. He never used the word love, which was interesting. It wasn’t part of his vocabulary. We had a bond. It was huge. It was baseball. We were together all the time. It was him and me. Now, that comes out a lot. I hear that probably in almost every conversation.
After a game, if he’s not here, I call him. After I do our walk with our director of entertainment on how we can plus the show, I do laps around the field then I call my dad. He says, “I love you, Jesse.” It was special. It all comes down to. You know all about love and all of us, if you can channel that to be an emotion that drives you in a good way and not to change everything you do for it but to appreciate it, to embrace it and to enjoy it. I embraced that love from him every day.
You’re a family within a family. It’s you and Emily and your son, Maverick.
We also have two foster daughters.
It’s beautiful how you’re giving that example of what’s possible with a family in new ways and being a part of the business together at the same time. A remarkable thing. This is my second and last question. As you take that love that you have for the whole enterprise and for the people in it, you told us before about the three loves, love the fans but love the people first and love yourself most of all. As you project that to the future, given where you are now, what you’ve seen you can accomplish, what does that canvas look like for the future of the Bananas and yourself in it?You need to have constraints to foster creativity. Click To Tweet
I was thinking about how the show starts, about this as a love story. It’s a love story about the fans, the players, love for the game. I don’t think of a canvas. It’s weird. When you think of a canvas, I think that’s too small.
Is it static?
Canvas is static. I’ve learned a lot from Michael Jackson, ironically. I’m saying him now. I read one of his books and it said, “You always wanted to study the greats and become greater.” I think about studying what some of the greats are doing and what they’ve done. I don’t think they had a static view of what they could do. What I learned from them is they loved their art. They loved their performance. They love what they got to do every day. They had this obsession for it that every day they worked on getting better.
Every day, I am obsessed with creating the greatest show and create a fan experience. What happens is that’s opening up doors I never imagined. For the hall of fame to call us, for major league teams to call us, I believe we’re going to play all over the world in places you never imagined playing. I’ve got calls about playing on an aircraft carrier. I’ve got calls about playing in different countries.
We’re going to embrace those because I know at the end of the night to have whatever’s left at the end of game, a couple of hundred fans with their arms around each other and our staff singing Stand By Me. I want everyone to feel that moment and feel like they’re a part of something. They saw something they never saw before in their world.
As we’re speaking, you’re being inundated now with interview requests from all over hell and back. What is that all about?
We’ve got a lot of announcements coming up, but in regards to our show, our future, our world tour, but yes, we announced that we were going all-in on Banana Balls. We had two teams. We used to have a college summer team that started it for us. We announced that we are all in on Banana Ball. We no longer play collegiate summer baseball, which is a huge risk on so many levels. It doesn’t make financial sense.Businesses need to spend enough time consciously and deliberately focusing on ideas. Click To Tweet
We’re going from you can’t pay college guys to have a million-dollar-plus payroll for players, but it’s all on creating long-term fans. Now, we can play in front of, I believe, soon to be over 1 million fans in one year, which is more than any NFL team, NBA team, NHL team and I believe we’re going to be doing that. That gives us now the freedom to bring Banana Ball all over the world.
That sets us up for the next interview from now to see. No doubt that that’s going to happen. What an exciting ride. Jesse, you are such an inspiration not only to me personally but to so many people. Not only because of the obvious reasons for what you guys are doing with the experience of baseball and making it fun. I get that. You’ve said before that you’re not in the business of baseball. You’re in the entertainment business. I get that too, but it is a love story.
The overriding experience that I have when I watch you guys on social media, the show, a game, which is our games are now broadcast on ESPN and when I talk to you is joyfulness. It’s joy. It’s the pure joy of being and doing great things for the people around you. In this day and age, it’s always important, but it’s more important than it’s ever been. Yellow is such a great color because it’s the color of the sun, not just the color of a banana.
We all need that. Jessie, the classic last question is how do what’s the best way for people to connect with you and with the Bananas? TikTok, obviously. LinkedIn, obviously.
If you search Yellow Tux, you’ll find me. I’m easy to find. If you search the Bananas, we’re easy to find. We’re investing a lot of time and energy to continue to put out good things in the world, things that make people laugh, that bring joy and so every day, we’re never going to stop you in that.
The book Fans First is a must-read. I saw, by the way, your incredible distribution, a strategy of selling it in the smallest bookstore in the world.
The world’s smallest bookstore. We found an old closet here at the stadium. It’s a maximum occupancy of one. I think it’s got the most sales per square foot at any store in the world. I hope so.
You’re probably selling more books in that closet than most people are selling at Barnes & Noble and around the world. Jesse, thank you so much. I know you’re in high demand, so I’m going to let you go, but folks, thanks for reading. Until next time. Do what you love in the service of people who love what you do.
- The Savannah Bananas
- Episode 18 – The Three Loves of The Savannah Bananas
- Fans First
- TikTok – TheSavBananas
- Love is Just Damn Good Business
- Fans First
- LinkedIn – Jesse Cole
- YouTube – The Savannah Bananas
About Jesse Cole
Jesse Cole is the founder of Fans First Entertainment, who owns and operates the Savannah Bananas. The Bananas have welcomed more than 1 million fans to their ballpark and have been featured on MSNBC, CBS Sunday Morning, Access Hollywood, HBO Real Sports, CNN, and ESPN.
The Savannah Bananas currently have sold out every game since the first season and have a wait list for tickets that’s over 60,000.
Cole is an in-demand speaker and author of “Find Your Yellow Tux – How to Be Successful by Standing Out,” and “Fans First, Change the Game, Break the Rules & Create an Unforgettable Experience.”
Cole believes to be successful you need to Stand Out and Be Different. He releases blogs and videos regularly on LinkedIn. He is passionate about creating attention, loving your customers more than your product and loving your employees more than your customers. Cole’s mantra is “Whatever’s normal, do the exact opposite.”