They not only hit home runs, their carefully choreographed dance routines are a home run with the crowd. They hurl fastballs as well as they hurl bananas into the stands. They turn double-plays as slickly as they turn the turnstiles. Who are they … ?
With more than 150 sellouts in the six years since they came into existence, the Savannah Bananas of the Coastal Plain League — a summer league for college baseball players akin to the more famous Cape Code League but with a heavy dose of fun — have created an epic, nationwide following. They’ve blown up the traditional construct of America’s [aging] Pastime. Baseball has lost its luster in recent years because the games can be slow, there’s no guarantee of exciting action, and people generally only sit for three hours if there’s an open bar or spa treatment involved.
Bananas team owner Jesse Cole released a book in May called Fans First: Change the Game, Break the Rules and Create an Unforgettable Experience. In it, he lays out the logic of incorporating zany but “aPEELing” [sorry, couldn’t resist] elements such as a senior citizen dance team called the Banana Nanas, a “Dad-bod” lineup of cheerleaders called the Man-anas, and a banana-costumed baby on the field before every game [there’s a waiting list to be included, BTW]. There’s also no bunting allowed, a foul ball caught in the stands by a fan is an out, and you can actually steal first base.
There’s a dancing third-base coach and home plate umpire, and a two-hour time limit on all games. They play in a century-old stadium with no billboards or advertising on outfield fences, walls, etc. No distractions, just pure entertaining fun.
Welcome to Banana Ball.
More than a Vaudevillian schtick …
Cole says to be successful, you must “capture the eyes and ears” of your targets whether they’re customers, fans or audience members. He has done just that. The Bananas have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, on ESPN, and, most recently, NBC’s Today Show. They pack stadiums wherever they go, their waitlist for tickets is said to exceed 40,000, and they ship Bananas merchandise around the world.
But they’re not just a slapstick pack of aspiring comedians, rodeo clowns, and jokesters. They’re more than a craft cocktail of Barnum & Bailey mixed with Globetrotters with a splash of Laurel & Hardy. If you question that, consider eight of the Bananas were selected in the 2021 Major League Baseball draft.
They’re actually making a difference in peoples’ lives – fans and employees. They entertain. They make people smile. They motivate and inspire. And they breed fierce loyalty.
Maybe there’s something those of us in the world of corporate meetings and events can learn from the Savannah Bananas and their high-energy, open-minded owner who attends each game in a bright yellow tux and top hat and greets fans in the stands. Let’s take a look at the Five E’s from Cole’s recent book.
Eliminate the Friction
“Once I started putting myself in the fan’s shoes, I started seeing the friction points. I asked, ‘If I was a real fan, what would I love? What would be the perfect experience?’ That’s what led to our all-inclusive, flat-rate $20 ticket. You can’t come to a game in Savannah without getting all your burgers, hotdogs, chicken sandwiches, soda, water, popcorn, and dessert for free with no parking fees, convenience fee on tickets and, by the way, we pay the taxes on the ticket, not the fan. I look everywhere for friction points and act on them.”
“We’re ‘fans first’ and we entertain always and that’s every step of the way from having parking penguins greeting you in the parking lot to sending music videos before you even come to our game with a playlist of music. We try to do a fun touch point every single step of the way and that’s been huge in creating fans and I think, most businesses can do that.
“I think a lot of businesses take themselves too seriously and, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know the last time someone came home, or your spouse came home, and said, ‘Honey, I met the most professional person today. They were just so professional. Oh, their professionalism was unbelievable.’ No, they talk about what was fun, what was unique, what was different, what was memorable so we lean into that.”
“Jeff Bezos said it best, ‘Success is a direct function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day.’ I don’t think businesses do enough experiments or test enough things to really see where and how they can make a big impact on their fans or customers. The key to creating raving fans is to experiment constantly. You can do small experiments that can then lead to big experiments. We incorporated dancing players and now it’s grown to the Banana Nanas, the Man-anas, and dancing coaches and umpires. Our players now actually do dances in the middle of a pitch. We had a video of players dancing that went viral on TikTok with 200 million views over the last month and a half. That came from the whole experiment mindset.”
“We teach our people to listen carefully, respond creatively. We teach them to ask questions and understand why our guests are coming in to really understand our customers and when we get to know them better, we surprise them with things.”
“If we want our people to live great experiences for our customers, we have to deliver great experiences to them first. We now have 1% of our topline budget that goes to solely surprising and rewarding our people. We sent an employee named Kurt, a diehard Duke fan, to Mike Krzyzewski’s last game at Cameron Arena. We sent Patrick, one of the biggest golf fans, to the Waste Management 16th hole where he got to see a hole-in-one this year. We sent Marie to Ireland with her dad on her bucket-list trip. We invest that money — which is not cheap — to motivate our employees to create those experiences of engaging people so everyone experiences something truly magical. Bottom line: We have built our business by doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing.”
Where to begin …
I know, I know, you’re likely scratching your head right now and thinking, “My client [or my company’s leadership] would never let me push boundaries like that.” Of course they wouldn’t! Corporate meetings and events are serious business gatherings with a bit of fun and social sprinkled in. They’re not fun and social gatherings with a bit of business sprinkled in. That’s called a boondoggle.
But … imagine the possibilities [keyword: imagine] if you applied the Five E’s that Cole writes about as you go about designing and planning your next business program. For instance:
- You already “get” one of audiences’ friction points is sitting in General Sessions too long so slice and dice it into mini-segments that are fast-moving, lively and engaging – a 4×100 relay versus a cross-country run. Identify other friction points and act on them.
- The business of business is serious but that doesn’t mean you can’t entertain always. Introduce elements of wonder or humor or other unexpected elements in your presentations or activities so the audience forgets to check their smartwatches every two minutes. The old adage of “violating audience expectations” is as important today as it was in yesterday’s world and before that. People like surprises. Give them surprises!
- Give your programs a makeover. Not a Ty Pennington-inspired extreme makeover, just a new way, a new look, a new vibe. Seek ways to add fresh, imaginative elements more fitting of today’s world and its younger, more restless workforce. Experiment constantly. A little here, a little there. Make notes and ID those things that go well and those that do not. Build upon your mini-successes and let them enlarge over time as you plan or host future events.
- We’re all aware that talking to, or at, an audience has gone the way of popped collars and shopping malls. That approach no longer works unless your goal is a zombie-like response. As mentioned above, audiences are more restless than ever. No news flash there. Meet them on their terms or you may as well cancel your program and save the money. Seek new and fresh ways to engage deeply. Bring in new perspectives when brainstorming program design. You never know who, when and where the next Yeah, baby! idea will come from.
- Your audience is smart. They’re generally eager, too. Most people are pleasers and want to prove themselves, especially sales professionals. Give them every chance to shine by equipping them with the right info, tools, resources, and rewards to empower action. They won’t let you down.
Just as Jesse Cole stresses Fans First, adopt a full-on mindset of Audience First. You may think you’ve been doing that all along but consider a Banana Ball approach and explore just how far you can go to make your next program the greatest ever. It all starts with imagination.
P.S. – On a side note, at a recent dealer conference for one of dynami’s clients, Jesse Cole was the featured speaker. As you might expect, he was highly entertaining and engaging and our audience went, well, bananas over his presentation!