Four lessons in innovation from the most creative team in baseball

The opening day of the baseball season provides an opportunity to reflect on the coming of spring, the joys of childhood, skipping school to join the ballpark — and for people like me who think about creativity and innovation, how difficult it can be transforming an institution that is in dire need of redesign and renewal. Almost everyone agrees how a recent sports illustrated analysis made it clear that Major League Baseball games last too long and move too slowly, that the so-called unwritten rules of conduct on the field preclude fun and spontaneity, and that the rise of analytics has replaced human drama with algorithmic tyranny. No wonder MLB now ranks behind the NFL and NBA in terms of popularity and star power.

That’s why it was so enlightening and educational to travel to Savannah, Georgia—far from the troubles of the big leagues—to visit an entrepreneur who is designing a different future for baseball by rewriting the rules of the game. He also develops some fascinating rules for innovation that apply well beyond the diamond.

Jesse Cole is the owner of Savannah Bananas. The Bananas play in the Coastal Plain League, a 15-team amateur summer league where top-ranked college players hone their skills and showcase their talent in hopes of getting drafted. Cole bought the team in October 2015 when it was still known as the Savannah Sand Gnats and operated as a minor league affiliate of the New York Mets. As a business, the Gnats sank into quicksand. The team didn’t create a stir and had few fans. A few hundred spectators turned out for the home games, which were played at the 4,000-seat Grayson Stadium, a legendary ballpark that opened in 1926 and has hosted games by immortals such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron.

Since Cole bought the team, the Bananas have sold out virtually every game and there is a 15,000-person waitlist for tickets. There is also a list of 1,200 names of people who want to play or work for the team. The Bananas have 1.5 million followers on TikTok, double the number of MLB’s most popular team, and loyal fans who gather at the stadium for games at 3:00 p.m. four hours before the first field. A function in United States today told the stories by fans who have traveled to Savannah from Illinois, Indiana and even Alaska to see a game. ESPN’s sport Center dedicated to seven minute segment how the bananas “have become the biggest show in baseball”.

So what explains the rising popularity of bananas in a world where “Nobody watches baseball anymore?” What have Jesse Cole and his colleagues learned about breathing new life into a dying company that might apply to other companies? I would highlight at least four lessons.

A successful business strategy starts with originality

The goal is not to be the best at what many others are already doing, but to be the only one doing what you are doing. It’s hard to overstate Bananas’ different, distinctive and unique financial model. Tickets for the games are general admission, which is one of the reasons fans line up early. Tickets are also all-inclusive (well, except for beer), meaning you watch a game, eat lots of hot dogs and peanuts, and don’t have to be nickeled for nine innings. Cole even eliminated corporate sponsorships and advertising inside the ballpark—no messages on the outside walls, no logos spray-painted on the field. “No one comes to the ballpark to be sold or promoted,” he told me, “so we got rid of it.” Today, 97% of the team’s total revenue comes directly from the fans; Merchandise sales bring in six times what sponsorships once did.

Even a well-known product can become an unforgettable experience

Successful organizations create unforgettable customer encounters. This lesson is at the heart of what is happening at Grayson Stadium. The Bananas may have to play by established baseball rules on the field, but the team has taken everything to do with the game to an unimaginable level of energy and entertainment. Sure, a lot of minor league baseball teams have fun gimmicks. But the bananas put on a show. The team has its own pep band, a group of male cheerleaders and a lover 65+ year old female dance team called Banana Nanas. Cole himself is a huge presence at every game – clad in a bright yellow tuxedo and top hat, he greets fans outside the stadium and leads cheers inside. “The game has become too long, too slow, too boring for too many people,” he tells me. No one would apply any of those words to the experience of visiting Grayson Stadium.

If you’re putting on a show, bring everyone

Appearances can take place anywhere you interact with customers. College players sign up with the Bananas to go head-to-head in a 55-game season that runs from late May through early August. But they are also performers. Players have walked on stilts to greet fans before games; they have worn kilts over their uniforms during games; They sing songs, perform skits, and show their personality in other ways. A favorite of mine is a locker room video where a player recites Jonah Hill’s slam poetry tribute to Cynthia from the movie 21 Jump Streetand fellow players snap their fingers in agreement.

Cole says there are “five stages” where the Bananas organization has an opportunity to perform for its fans — the parking lot, the front plaza to the stadium, the concourses within the stadium, the stands, and on the field — and these are the The team has to deliver something memorable at every stage of every game. There’s also a sixth phase, which is year-round conversations with fans. Team members make 300,000 annual thank-you calls to customers who purchase tickets, order merchandise, and otherwise engage with the organization.

Even the most creative groups need to keep pushing the boundaries of innovation

The Bananas are constantly rethinking the logic of their success, and this lesson is key for the future of the team and for any organization looking to keep moving and changing with the times. A few years ago, when the Bananas were breaking records for attendance in the Coastal Plain League, Cole realized that the rules of amateur baseball were preventing him from addressing the deeper strategic challenge — the failure of the game itself to adapt to the Adjust attitudes and sensibilities of younger audiences and modern times. So he created a professional team, also called the Savannah Bananas, to play against a rival team he created called the Party Animals. Both teams’ rosters include former college players and former MLB players, as well as guest appearances from the likes of two-time World Series pitcher Jake Peavy and Red Sox legend Bill “Spaceman” Lee.

Most importantly, teams play a new version of baseball called Banana Ball Nine rules that completely redesign the game. For example, games have a time limit of two hours. Also, every inning counts; After the top and bottom of an innings, the team with the most runs gets a point, but the runs themselves do not carry over. There are no walks; After four balls, a batter “sprints” to and beyond first base and can only be tagged after all nine players on defense have touched the ball –a rule that leads to wild choreographies on the field. Cole likens the professional version of the Bananas to the Harlem Globetrotters, although unlike the hapless Washington Generals, the Party Animals get to win. Cole tested this new business model with a 14-game “world tour” that took the bananas and the party animals to Montgomery, Alabama, Daytona Beach, Florida, Kansas City, Kansas and other cities. So far every game has been sold out.

I’m not sure any sports league has been more resilient to change than Major League Baseball, with its complacent owners, huge player contracts, and high-profile TV deals. I’m sure no baseball team has been more open to change than the amateur and professional versions of the Savannah Bananas, who play well outside the national limelight.

Perhaps that’s another innovation lesson from Cole and his colleagues: sometimes the most creative ideas come from the least expected places. The mere fact that an organization operates on the periphery, outside of the glare and harsh pressures, creates a freedom to experiment and innovate that is not available to large, high-level organizations. Four lessons in innovation from the most creative team in baseball


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