The Savannah Bananas sold out every home game during their 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons.
However, unable fit more fans into Grayson Stadium, which seats 4,500 fans, or add games to their Coastal Plain League (CPL) schedule, the increasingly popular exhibition baseball team watched its top line plateau. “We got the business up to about $3 million in revenue and it was like there is no growth after this unless we completely retool this thing,” Bananas president Jared Orton said.
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Major League Baseball’s decision to consolidate the minor leagues and eliminate 40 MiLB affiliates opened the door for the Bananas to revamp the business. The club has since disaffiliated itself with the CPL and earlier this month announced the stops and dates for its upcoming 71-game, 33-city barnstorming tour.
Orton expects next year’s changes to bring in six times the revenue as it did pre-pandemic.
JWS’ Take: The Bananas are often compared to the Harlem Globetrotters because of their entertainment-focused approach to the sport. And like the Globetrotters, there are scripted moments in their games. “We’re going to bring in 75-year-old Bill Lee to pitch. We’re going to bring in trick pitchers and Jonny Gomes or Eric Byrnes to pinch hit,” Orton said.
But unlike the Globetrotters, who never lose to the Washington Generals, the outcome of Bananas’ games are not predetermined. “The Bananas will lose. A fan caught a foul ball for an out in Kansas City last season against the Bananas, and we ended the game,” Orton said.
Fans making outs is just part of what makes Banana Ball—the Bananas’ fun, fast-paced, high-energy version of baseball—different. It tends to be “like a circus and a baseball game broke out,” Orton said.
The Bananas arrived in Savannah, Ga. in 2015 after the Sand Gnats, a New York Mets’ minor league affiliate, relocated from Savannah to Columbia, S.C. Without a MiLB club to occupy the ballpark, the city of Savannah gave Orton and Bananas founder Jesse Cole the chance to bring their vision for minor league baseball to the city. The two had previously been operating a college summer league team in Gastonia, N.C.
The decision to lean into entertainment first was an obvious one. Cole and Orton understood that fans who want to watch traditional baseball have plenty of options, and that an unaffiliated minor league club is going to be last among those choices. “We had to differentiate and carve out this niche, or maybe 100 people would come, and we were going to be out of business really quickly,” Orton said.
The hometown fans did not take to the Bananas immediately. “We were seen as so much lesser than professional baseball,” Orton said.
Of course, those same fans weren’t coming out for minor-league baseball when it was in town, either. Orton estimates the Sand Gnats drew around 400 fans a game during their final season in the city in 2015.
But Cole and Orton continued to push the message that Bananas’ games were different and that coming to one would change fans’ perspective. Word began to spread that the games were as fun as advertised, and the team started to sell out.
The Bananas sold out 17 of 25 games in 2016 and every one of their home games during the 2017, 2018 and 2019 seasons.
But Cole and Orton realized the club, which was making the bulk of its revenue from ticket sales, premium concessions and merchandise sales, couldn’t sell any more tickets. “We really flat-lined and were at a huge inflection point,” Orton said.
When MLB decided to contract 40 MiLB clubs, Cole and Orton’s vision to convert the Bananas into barnstormers and a 365 day a year brand became viable. The MiLB contraction meant more than three dozen cities—and existing venues—would be without professional baseball, and the Bananas could fill that hole in those markets, just as it did in Savannah.
The Bananas took their show on the road for the first time in 2021, a two-game stop in Mobile, Ala.—and the “One City World Tour” was an overwhelming success. Many of the 3,500 fans who packed the stadium each night had never heard of the club before it arrived in town, giving Cole and Orton confidence the touring model could work.
The Bananas increased the number of tour stops to six in 2022. In 2023, the club will take Banana Ball on the road full-time—including some markets with existing MiLB or MLB teams.
One might assume the Bananas would struggle to draw fans in markets with professional baseball, but the club is not targeting the same audience. The Bananas are looking to reach “people who are on the fringe of baseball fandom, as well as kids and families and all these people who may not fit in the traditional baseball mindset.”
They are also not pitching the same product. “We’re going to create a very unique show, where every single moment is scripted out, the parades, characters, sing-alongs and dances; and it’s all Bananas branded content,” Orton said. The goal is to evoke the feeling of, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen that at a baseball game before.”
The barnstorming model will enable the Bananas to control their own destiny in terms of growing the fan base. “We’re going to play in front of 400,000 or 425,000 people next year. Last year, we played in front of about 180,000,” Orton said.
It will also allow the Bananas to sell more tickets and merchandise. Around 35% of the tickets for the 2023 tour sold within the first week of going on sale.
The high demand didn’t come without help. Last August, ESPN debuted a documentary called Bananaland about the team. “The people who have found it and connect with it are wanting to follow this and figure out how they can see it live in person,” Orton said.
In addition to ticketing and merch sales, the Bananas plan to grow the top line with the sale of tour naming rights, premium in-stadium experiences and a new 4,000-member paid fan club.
The “gravy” will be any ancillary revenue they can be derive from licensing club media rights. ESPN2 carried one Bananas game in conjunction with the Bananaland documentary release. It drew 186,000 viewers, 49% of which were in the valued 18-49 demographic. In comparison, the primetime average for broadcast TV is just 18%.
In the meantime, the club will broadcast its games on its own channels. “We’re committed to investing in the tech and people, and building out the infrastructure to show this game in a new way,” Orton said. The club has 4.5-million fans across its social media platforms, and the Bananas last YouTube broadcast drew 30,000 unique viewers.
The Bananas have not taken on any outside capital. Cole owns the majority of the team, while Orton controls a small percentage.
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