Meet Jesse Cole, Savannah’s Top Banana
The Savannah Bananas aren’t your average collegiate summer league baseball team. Not even close! They have created a ballpark experience with non-stop entertainment surrounding a ballgame. In doing so, they’ve generated a lot of buzz in the sports and entertainment world, well beyond their cozy Savannah home. Very recently, I had a tremendous opportunity to chat with their ringleader, Jesse Cole.
BK: I am going to start with something I haven’t learned about you from watching previous interviews. Tell me about your personal baseball journey. Where’d you grow up? Who was your team? Who were your favorite players? What was your baseball playing experience? And what inspired you to get involved in the baseball business?
JC: Wow, it’s been a long time since someone asked me about my baseball background! I grew up in Scituate, Massachusetts, what we call the South Shore. I started playing ball at a young age, probably 4 or 5. In fact, when I was a kid my father bought a baseball facility, largely so I could develop as a player. We could practice year round, which isn’t easy to do in Massachusetts. I grew up a Red Sox fan and even served as their Bat Boy when I was five. I got to see guys like Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens up close. I’ve always been a big Red Sox fan, grew up watching guys like Mo Vaughn, Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra.
In my personal baseball career, I was heavily recruited out of high school. I had a number of big college offers from Boston College, Northeastern and Wake Forest. I was being scouted by MLB as well. But it ended up being Wofford College (Spartanberg, SC) that wanted me the most and offered me the best deal.
JC: I was a pitcher, but I often became a two way player and I was being looked at by MLB teams again. By my senior year, I had blown out my arm; rotator cuff, everything. My last start ever was against South Carolina. After that, I thought coaching might be my path forward. I coached in the Cape Cod League for a summer, but it wasn’t my passion.
During my college years, I interned with the Spartanberg Stingers of the Coastal Plain League. I learned how to sell tickets and sponsorships, the things you need to do to run a ballclub. That experience helped land me the spot as General Manager for the Gastonia Grizzlies, at the age of 23. Gastonia was the worst team in the league at the time, so I guess they were willing to take a chance on me. And that’s where my career in the business side of baseball really began.
BK: Describe that experience at Gastonia and how it helped lead you to what you created with the Bananas.
JC: As GM in Gastonia, we started to see some success. We doubled and then tripled attendance. As the franchises continued to grow, the owner offered me some ownership in the team. During this time, I met my wife, who worked for Ripken Baseball. We got engaged right there on the field during a Grizzlies game.
Soon after, she took me to Savannah for a weekend and we attended a minor league game at Grayson Stadium. I loved the ballpark, loved the city and the whole historical component of everything; but nobody was there. However, I was convinced that if the Mets affiliate left Savannah, I wanted to put a CPL team there.
By the end of the season, they were gone. It took some convincing with the city of Savannah, but they came to Gastonia to see what I was doing and bought in. The Bananas nickname was created through a public contest. Once that name was picked, things started taking off. We got all kinds of media, good and bad, but people were talking about us.
I look for good stories and this was an opportunity to create a great story. The first six to eight months were really tough, but it led us to creating what we did with the Bananas.
BK: As you know, MLB took further control of the minor league system and cut loose over 40 franchises this year. Some teams became summer collegiate league teams, some went independent and others just folded. This obviously hurts many of the mid-size and small towns that host franchises. At the same time, this could also present opportunities for different types of independent baseball leagues. What’s your take on minor league restructuring? And do you see new opportunities for different types of independent baseball leagues?
JC: If the goal is to create fans, Major League Baseball would be making a lot of their decisions much differently. That’s clearly not their highest priority. Take a team like the St. Paul Saints, who were a highly successful independent team. Now they are a Triple-A team for the Twins. They very much have their hands tied in terms of what they can do.
As soon as you eliminate red tape, you open up opportunities. It allows you to challenge the way things are commonly done. Let me give you an example with the way I run my team. Some teams on their day off might have a practice. Just yesterday, on our off day, our team was here shooting a video, acting out a scene from A League of their Own. We will add that video to our YouTube page and it will attract viewers and create more fans. We aren’t just a baseball team, we’re a brand and our brand is always expanding.
The Bananas Vision
BK: After watching some of your videos, it’s clear you are very connected to the local community. You’ve obviously built a loyal fan base and given them a unique baseball experience. Have you created something very unique to Savannah or do you think the “Bananas model” is something that can be replicated in other markets?
JC: Fans first! That’s our motto and the title of my next book. We have a long term plan and vision to keep building our brand. Go check it out on our website, it’s called “Vision 2025.”
The reality is that most teams think about short term gains. They build a new stadium, rebrand themselves with a new mascot and come up with some promotions. Teams like this get a boost in merchandise for their first year and then things decline after that.
We’re doing the opposite. We are growing our sales month after month. I’ll be honest, it’s a lot of work. Every night, there’s something new that we haven’t tried yet. Do I think it’s possible to replicate a lot of what we’ve done with the Bananas? Yes, but you need a long term plan and the motivation to carry it out.
The Bananas Brand
BK: There are dozens of summer collegiate leagues and hundreds of these teams all over the country. How do you put together your roster each season? And have you seen an increase in interest among college players when they discover what the Bananas are all about?
JC: Honestly, we get 1,000 plus players who email us with interest in playing for our team and we’ve only got 30 spots to fill. A lot of them find us on TikTok, we have over 600,000 followers; more than any MLB team. We have to be very selective with players, because we want guys who are going to buy into the whole thing. We need the guys who can perform and entertain.
No one gets a uniform until they get through an entire Bananas orientation with me. Most summer league teams give you a uniform, snap a picture and send you out on the field. Our guys have to do things like learn dances and deliver roses to little girls in the stands. Baseball is only a small part of what we do.
The Bananas Experience
BK: My son and I are attending the July 3rd game, thanks to one of your generous (and enthusiastic) season ticket holders. This will be our first Savannah Bananas game. Your fan base insists that you cannot fully capture what Bananas baseball is about without the live game experience. What are some of the most important features of the ballpark, the game and the festivities that we need to experience?
JC: Let me put it this way, you’re attending a circus and a baseball game will break out. We’ve got a twenty member pep band, the Banana Nanas (senior citizen dance team) and the Man-anas (our dad bod cheer-leading squad). We have parades and we have the whole stadium sing and dance together. Our players learn a new dance every night and everything we do on the entertainment side is scripted intentionally. The game you’re attending on July 3rd is even more amazing, because you are going to see “Banana Ball.” It won’t be a typical CPL baseball game, although nothing we do is typical. We can’t wait to have you and your son in Bananaland!
In preparing for this interview, I dug deep into the Banana’s video library and prior media coverage. To capture a little more of the magic, I strongly suggest watching the Banana’s Story on their website. As Cole mentioned in this interview, the team’s League of their Own video scene has been released. If you’re a baseball movie buff, like I am, you’ll also enjoy their Sandlot and Bull Durham skits. There’s all kinds of fun content out there courtesy of the Bananas.
Jesse Cole wrote a book called Find Your Yellow Tux, outlining his approach to business. Perhaps the most impressive thing about his philosophy isn’t the yellow tux or the non-stop entertainment he provides at his ballgames, but his team’s simple motto, “fans first.”