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More than a baseball team


Jesse Cole is the owner of the Savannah Bananas baseball club. In his management of the club, he applies all kinds of laws that are also applicable to the world of business. He learned how to turn customers into fans from the greats, including Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum. How? By offering entertainment at the highest level, of course.

Have you heard the story of Jesse Cole? He was once a promising baseball player, but an injury quickly put an end to his professional career. At the age of 23, he got a job as general manager of a small college baseball club, The Gastonia Grizzlies. Since he didn't know much about how to manage a baseball club, he began reading all kinds of books about entertainment and marketing, such as those written by Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum. Cole: "I said, 'We are not in the baseball business, but in the entertainment business. P.T. Barnum was the major of Bridgeport and the owner of various circuses. In the nineteenth century, he was far ahead of his time by making sure his PR was the best in the business. He knew exactly how to garner attention from the media. He travelled the world with his "Greatest show on Earth" that included midgets, elephants and mermaids and he was always able to win the favour of local journalists with a clever stunt or two. For example, he once used a small circus elephant to plough his front garden. He once said: 'Without promotion something terrible happens.'"

Dance routines
During his tenure as general manager of the Grizzlies, Cole applied the same laws that Disney and Barnum had lived by: he added dance routines, put on a yellow outfit and - oh yes - met his wife Emily, to whom he proposed during a game. In 2014, they booked a holiday to Savannah. As fervent baseball lovers, a visit to the local club had to be part of the itinerary. He noticed that there was only a small crowd in the stadium. He told the league that if they ever needed a buyer for their club, they should give him a call. In 2016, they did just that. At the time, there was nothing; the club didn't even have a name. "We had to find a way to steal people's hearts."

His biggest challenge was getting the local community in Savannah involved in the club. For starters, he launched a competition to come up with a new name for the club. The winning suggestion: the Savannah Bananas. Consequently, the club's official colour become yellow (as were its mascot and the bases on the field). During the first game, 4,000 people came to the stadium, because the spectacle had received widespread attention. In some way, the games are more like events that Cole hosts in his yellow outfit. For example, the trainer always does a little dance on first base and the players come up with a new dance every week as well. Then there is the Banana Baby - you've guessed it, a baby in a banana outfit - who comes out during every game. Visitors pay $20 for a ticket, which includes free drinks and snacks all night long.

Every Monday, the club organises a meeting to discuss the dance routines that players perform to entertain the audience. They begin learning the new routine on Wednesday. What is most important is that the photographers for the socials get a good view of the dance routines. These days, every game is sold out and the team travels across the US to play practice games against other teams as part of their "Crazy Bananas World Tour." Wherever they play, watching a Savannah Bananas game is guaranteed to be a spectacular experience.

Fans, fans, fans
Cole has written two books about his approach to marketing for the Savannah Bananas; Find your Yellow Tux and Fans First, which he talked about on The Marketing Book Podcast. "We always have a script ready just in case it rains for three hours. The core element of our strategy is that we try to do things a little bit differently. If you want to capture people's attention, you will have to flip tradition on its head. We want to make sure people have a great time at our games. Baseball has a reputation of being a drawn-out and boring affair at times; we try to turn that around." This approach turns out to be quite effective, he says. During the first four weeks of the World Tour, for example, the team got more than one million new followers. "You have to earn people's attention. We are in the attention business..."

Broad applications
The same laws that Cole applies in his stadium can also used in the world of business. There are two important elements to consider: eliminating problems and focusing on acquiring fans rather than customers. "If you want to improve things, it is important to resolve existing issues. Look at the taxi business, for example. A commonly heard complaint there was that the prices were too high. Then Uber came in and began doing things differently. In baseball, games can go on forever and the audience can get bored. We have therefore taken steps to ensure our audience has a good time." Cole recommends a systematic approach. That means examining every moment of interaction between - in this case - the club and the customer to look for potential areas of improvement. The club does not use boring invoices, for example. Instead, they congratulate people on being able to contribute to the club! Instead of traditional hold music, they play "Bananaphone."

Fans, fans, fans
Cole believes you can achieve great success by not focusing on sales but rather on creating fans. Instead of going for maximum revenue tomorrow, you adopt a long-term approach. "The criterion I always use is whether people want to wear your shirt when they don't have to. Those are your true fans." Cole says his approach not only works well for a small baseball team; he also has excellent experiences with a construction company that renovates houses. One day, a representative from that company sat in the audience and listened to Cole's "fans first" narrative. Six months later, Cole was asked to visit the company and give a presentation. The manager explained how they were doing everything differently: they made videos of the renovation process, laid out the red carpet for the owners when their house was finished and even organised a birthday party for a customer in their unfinished home. In other words, they managed to turn potential issues into fun experiences and acquired many new fans along the way.

Meanwhile, the Savannah Bananas are doing well.The club's website has an amazing video about their vision for 2025, with a focus on the "fans first" motto. "We are always experimenting to see what works best. We like to challenge the status quo and do things differently than everyone else. We push boundaries. We believe that nothing is 'awkward.' We are attracting attention all over the world. It is all about entertainment and being part of something.We do not take ourselves too seriously. We are more than a baseball team." 

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