How the Savannah Bananas grew from millions in debt to the greatest show in sports.
Over the course of the last 12 months, you’ve probably been scrolling TikTok and come across some unusual baseball videos. A seemingly random team, dressed in yellow, pulling off some of the craziest mid-game stunts that baseball has ever seen. The entire team and umpire doing a synchronized dance, the hitter, catcher, and umpire all doing the splits before summer saluting to first base, flaming bats, and even claiming the title of having the world’s tallest pitcher who wore 4-foot stilts out to the mound. That team is called The Savannah Bananas and behind it all is Jesse and Emily Cole. It was a book about Walt Disney that led them to risk millions of dollars to turn the Bananas into the greatest show in sports history.
The Early Days: From College Ball to a Major Setback
While you might already know about the bananas, you might not realize that Jesse and Emily Cole are one of the most fascinating entrepreneurial success stories you’ll ever hear. You see, before they had nearly 8 million followers on social media, national news coverage, a T.V. series on ESPN, and a waitlist of over 500,000 people to get a ticket, (which is enough to fill their stadium 125 times by the way) the Bananas were a struggling collegiate baseball team, millions of dollars in debt, with few fans.
To understand how this all came to be, we need to go back to 1989, when Jesse Cole was 5 years old and his dad signed him up for the South Shore Baseball club. It was a small training program in Hingham, MA. and over the course of the next three months, Jesse fell in love with the game. He grew up to be pretty good. In fact, he was one of only three highschoolers in the entire state of Massachusetts who could pitch over 90 mph which caught the attention of not only college programs, but professional scouts. Jesse’s hard work started paying off in 2003 when he accepted a scholarship to Wofford College to play in their division one program in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He was a consistent starting pitcher even as a freshman and at a glance, seemed to be well on his way to playing in Major League Baseball. However, everything came to a screeching halt after he tore his shoulder his senior year of college and was told he could never pitch again.
At this point, Jesse graduated from college but I have to imagine times were pretty tough. However, if you ask Jesse, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
After graduation, he went to work as a coach in the Cape Cod Baseball League. It’s one of the most prestigious amateur baseball leagues in the U.S. where top college players from around the United States play in the summer months and a feeding ground for MLB scouts where they’ve pulled players like Aaron Judge, Pete Alonso, and Kyle Schwarber. During his time there, Jesse came to one realization: baseball is extremely boring to watch. The game moved slowly, didn’t hold the audience's attention, and he watched every day as fans left before the game was over. Once he was able to sit back and see the game from the perspective of someone sitting in the stands he couldn’t help but think, “what if we made it fun?”
Unconventional Beginnings: From the Grizzlies to a Business Vision
It was 2008 and Jesse had only been out of college for a year. It was a long shot for him to be in a position to actually make baseball fun, but not impossible. A few years prior while he was in college, he took an internship with the Spartanburg Stingers of the Coastal Plain League. That’s also a collegiate summer league played throughout the Carolina’s, Virginia, and Georgia. At the time it was merely an internship, but it turned out to be more valuable than expected. The Spartanberg Stingers taught Jesse 2 things you need to know to run a ballclub, how to sell tickets and how to get sponsorships. He was able to leverage that experience to land a job as the General Manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies at the age of 23. They were a collegiate ballclub in Gastonia North Carolina that also played in the Coastal Plain League. To put it lightly, they were the worst team in the league at the time and were willing to take a chance on pretty much anyone with a plan. That’s where Jesse’s career in the business side of baseball began.
Let’s be honest, the Gastonia Grizzlies were more than struggling. They had 16 wins and 37 losses in 2007, lost $100,000, and gave Jesse the reins with $268 in the bank account. Remember when I said they would take a chance on anyone with a plan? Well Jesse had one and it was rather… unconventional. Books about Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum planted seeds in Jesse’s head for how he could make baseball more fun. They led to an epiphany that changed his mindset from being in the sports business to being in the entertainment business. And if you’re wondering who P.T. Barnum is, he started The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus which was an American traveling circus company billed as The Greatest Show on Earth.
Can you see where this is going?
Jesse started experimenting with infusing more entertainment into baseball games. He introduced things like grandma beauty pageants, salute to underwear night, and choreographed dances by the players. It was the typical side show at baseball games like mascots, cheerleaders, and t-shirt cannons but taken to an entirely new level. Imagine going to one of the Grizzlies games having gone to some before but this time you suddenly see the pitcher doing the macarena. It was a genius marketing strategy and took principles like those from The Purple Cow by Seth Goden to make the few people that went to the Grizzlies game have to tell their friends and family about it. It worked so well that the Grizzlies broke the attendance record every year for the next 7 years.
There was one stunt that completely changed what the next 10 years of Jesse’s life would bring. It happened during the final game of the Grizzlies 2014 season. Jesse put on his now iconic full yellow suit, readied the fireworks display, and got down on one knee to propose to his girlfriend in front of the crowd. She, of course, said yes and in return, surprised Jesse with a trip to Savannah, GA. It was during that trip that they went to a minor league game played by the Sand-Gnats at the Historic Grayson Stadium. It was a beautiful stadium, the weather was perfect, but the stadium was empty. Jesse couldn’t believe it. He fell so in love with the classic feel of Grayson Stadium that he called the commissioner of his league that night and told them if the sand-gnats ever leave, he wants to bring a team there.
The Birth of the Bananas: Struggles and Surprises
As fate would have it, just a few months after Jesse’s visit, the Sand-Gnats 31-year run in Grayson Stadium came to end as they moved to a newly constructed park. He immediately called the city and pitched his vision to bring in an entirely new genre of baseball. They had to come see a game in Gastonia for themselves and decided to give him a shot. Jesse convinced the Coastal Plain League to award him an expansion team and the Savannah Bananas were born. But they weren’t called the Bananas just yet. They were nameless, fanless, and had a mountain of problems in front of them.
Regardless, Jesse and Emily showed up and were handed the keys to Grayson Stadium on October 05, 2015. As they explored the venue it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Unbeknownst to them, the stadium was stripped of internet, phone lines, and even furniture. What they did have was Jesse, Emily, a 24-year-old team president, three 22-year-olds fresh out of college, one picnic table in the middle of a storage room, and a dream.
To say things weren’t great would be an understatement. On top of that, although city officials were happy to have a new team in Savannah, the Savannah community was not. And to be fair, they had no reason to be. The city had brought a non-established, second-class baseball team into the town’s historic stadium and expected people to root for them.
Nobody knew who they were, what they did, or why they were there. In an unsuccessful attempt to change that, they planned a launch event in November, 2015 at the city conference center. After inviting as many people as they possibly could that included family, friends, residents, and city officials, they were met with a total crowd of 100 people. Enough people to fill 2.5% of Grayson Stadium.
They only managed to sell one season ticket in the first 2 months of promoting the team and by the middle of January 2015, Jesse and Emily overdrafted their bank account and were completely out of money. It turns out, building a baseball team from the ground up is expensive. The pair took the fast track from debt free to $1.8 million in debt from buying the expansion team, the stadium lease, and trying to get things off the ground. They were forced to sell their home, empty their savings, and sleep on an air mattress in a studio apartment with $30 a week for groceries to make ends meet.
It was clear at this point that they needed to do something to catch people’s attention. And what better way to do it, then fan the flames of those who were angriest about them coming to Savannah.
From Struggles to Success: The Rise of the Bananas Empire
From late 2015 and into the early months of 2016, they held a contest to decide the new name of the baseball team. It seemed like a fun, harmless way to involve the community in the team’s story. The submissions came pouring in. From the Pickles, the ghosts, and the to-go cups, there were only 5 options that made it to the final round out of about 1,000 total submissions.
Savannah Party Animals
And… the… Savannah Bananas
On February 25, 2016, they officially announced the name of Savannah’s newest sports team, The Savannah Bananas. So how many votes did it take for the name Bananas to come out on top? About one. Much like Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum, Jesse loves the unconventional. He knew he had to do something to catch people’s attention that was radically different and the name Bananas was just that. At that point, it didn’t matter whether it made people happy, mad, or sad. They just had to get them to feel something.
What came next was something no one saw coming. Within 30 minutes of announcing the name, they were the #1 trending on twitter. It was unlike anything a summer college baseball league team had ever experienced before. The next day, ESPN was reaching out for interviews and the Bananas finally started making some money. But it wasn’t from baseball games, it was from merchandise. Jesse started clicking refresh on his email and noticed they were selling new merch every couple of seconds to people all over the world. Within two weeks, they had shipped out Bananas merch to all 50 states. Local newspapers all the way to CBS Sports and the MLB were publishing articles about Savannah’s new baseball team. And some people even tore them apart, saying Jesse should leave town and would never sell a single ticket. But one thing was clear, people now knew about the Savannah Bananas.
It turns out, they would sell a single ticket and then some. On Thursday, June 2, 2016, the Savannah Bananas sold out their first game. The Bananas were officially operating a first of its kind baseball show. They had a mascot named split, the stunts got crazier and the fanbase grew.
The club went on to sell out 17 of their 22 home games in their inaugural season, setting the new Coastal Plain League record. And the fans weren’t the only ones to show up, the players did too. The Bananas won the Coastal Plain League Championship in August of their inaugural season. Jesse realized that the players actually played better baseball when the fans were having more fun. So, he took what’s usually only the role of the team mascot and gave it to every person on the field. They hired senior citizens and started a 65+ dance team called the Banana Nanas, a man only cheerleading squad called the mananas, hired a pep band to play like they would at a college football game, and ramped up the now famous dance skits.
Innovation in Action: Introducing Banana Ball
Over the next couple of years, things were looking up. Attendance was high, people were loving the Bananas, and Jesse and Emily weren’t homeless. They had broken the collegiate summer baseball attendance record in both seasons, had plenty of national media coverage, and were pulling fans from across the country to see the show in Grayson Stadium with a growing waitlist of over 10,000 people. But there was still one problem. No matter how many entertaining, circus-like acts they threw into a 9-inning game, fans would still leave early every time. As it turns out, the solution to get people to stick around might’ve been a whole lot easier than a senior citizens dance team. You see, the average length of an MLB game has been over 3 hours since 2016. The games are just too long. In 2018, Jesse started brainstorming what parts of the game he thought were boring and quite literally, changed the game of baseball. He called up an old coach from college and asked if he’d be willing to lend his players to test the new concept, Banana Ball.
They came up with 8 official rules to make games more exciting.
Each inning is played separately
Games had a 2 hour time limit no matter how many innings had been played
Batters can take off from home plate and steal first base at any time
Batter’s can’t step out of the batter’s box. If they do, it’s a strike
No mound visits
If a fan catches a foul ball, it’s an out
They played a 9 inning game behind closed doors and finished it in 99 minutes. More than that, the players loved it. However, it wasn’t for another year and a half that Jesse and team mustered the confidence to unveil Banana Ball to a real crowd. It was the start of the 2020 season and what was about to be the craziest year of the 20th century for the Savannah Bananas and the world.
As the world shut down, the Bananas, unlike most sports teams, continued to play in front of a crowd at half capacity. On top of that, there were only 2 other teams playing in the Coastal Plain League South which left plenty of time on the schedule for some non-league games. If there was ever a time to test a brand new concept, it was then. So, just before the start of the 2020 season, the Bananas hosted the first ever official Banana Ball scrimmage. The stadium filled up, the team split into two sides, and the fans loved it. So much so, a new project sprung up that was spearheaded by the team’s Vice President, Berry, to start an entirely new team to play Banana Ball versus the Bananas. What’s crazy is Berry started as an intern 4 years prior, worked his way up to Vice President, and was now in charge of arguably the most important project they’ve taken on. He handled everything from the uniform creation to putting an actual team together, mostly from local collegiate baseball talent. And the Savannah Party Animals were born. A Lot of people say the Party Animals to the Bananas are what the Washington Generals are to the Harlem Globetrotters. Except that’s not entirely accurate, the games aren’t rigged and the Party Animals are there to win. Unlike the Globetrotters who didn’t lose a game in 50 years before snapping their 8829 game win streak in 2021, the Bananas lost 6 of the 11 games they played against the Party Animals in April 2023 alone.
TikTok Fame and Business Expansion
The Savannah Bananas now had a fun, exciting, fast-paced game, a new team to play against them whenever they wanted, and plenty of time with the cut-back 2020 season. There was only one thing left until world domination. (TikTok montage) It was late 2019 that the Bananas started interviewing candidates for a digital marketing internship. One question asked during the interview process might have just changed the future of the team forever.
“What’s one thing you’d change about our marketing?”
Savanah Alaniz didn’t hesitate:
“Oh, I’d get you guys a TikTok, like easy peasy. That’s one thing where I think y’all could grow.”
I’m sure you remember the time in late 2019 or early 2020 that you caved under peer pressure and downloaded that dancing app with the short videos. At the time, Savanah was in college and watching as TikTok took over the free time of her and her friends. In February 2020, she secured the position. If you think about it, the team was already a content machine putting on skits and shows for the audience inside of Grayson Stadium so it was a natural transition to continue those same stunts in front of the camera.
When Savanah showed up for her first day of her summer internship she was assigned her summer project: TikTok. It didn’t take long to prove it might be a valuable investment. On June 5, 2020, they had their first video clock over 100,000 views.
They gained momentum by leaning into their female audience, showcasing things like shirtless, dancing players. Savanah managed to grow the Savannah Bananas TikTok to over 200,000 followers by the end of the summer, 70% being female. It’s safe to say Alaniz proved her worth as she joined the team full time after her internship with the official title of “Pop Culture Prodigy”. In the years since, the content transitioned to a more broad entertainment lens and leaning into trends. It’s now common for their videos to get multiple millions of views.
The future of the Savannah Bananas became clearer as Banana Ball started to outgrow the team’s traditional collegiate summer league. That led Jesse and the Bananas on a quest to bring it to more people. The team did a 7 city tour in 2022 where they hit the road and brought the full circus baseball show directly to their growing online following. They ended up selling 8x as many tickets as MLB spring training games while playing in the same stadiums. Not only were the fans loving it, but business was (booming clip). Bananas merch was still being sold across the country and at $25 a ticket, they would make $100,000 per home game in just ticket sales. However, total revenue is reportedly upwards of $200,000 per game through things like promotions, and merchandise. However, annual revenue had plateaued around $3 million since there’s not much more they can do beyond selling out Grayson Stadium. Something needed to change.
The 2022 season was the final season that the Bananas would play in the Coastal Plain league. With over 8 million followers on social media, it was time to go all in on Banana Ball. In February of 2023, they embarked on a 70-game tour across 33 cities in 22 states where they showcase trick plays, tiktok dances, and of course, Banana Ball. The waitlist for tickets shot to 500,000 people long before it even started and the team’s president expects 2023’s revenue to be 6x more than what it was before 2020.
The Cole Legacy: Lessons in Persistence and Adaptation
The business of the Bananas is unlike any other sports team. Jesse and Emily Cole represent what it truly takes to follow your dream with persistence. They also showcased time and time again their extreme ability to iterate and adapt their plan when things weren’t going well. From tearing his shoulder, to transitioning from player to coach, to recognizing the problems of the game he loved, to calling the leagues commissioner on a whim to pitch plans for a new team, to winning over the hearts of the people of Savannah, to completely changing how the game of baseball is played. The duo never stopped moving forward even if it seemed like they were making it nowhere. Jesse says his goal isn’t to create a billion dollar brand but to win over a billion fans.