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This may sound a bit ridiculous, making sports fun.
Sports are fun, they bring communities together, get our heart rates going and bring out emotions - for better or worse. We pass down our love for sports from generation to generation. But whilst the sports themselves don’t change, younger generations, along with technology, are re-defining how we consume sports, and by doing so questioning what makes sport "fun."
The Savannah Bananas, a baseball club from Georgia, USA, that started out as a summer league team where college players can showcase their talents, has torn up the rule book when it comes to in-venue and digital entertainment. In doing so they changed the way many baseball fans in the U.S. view the sport - making it "fun."
“We know that we're never going to win the World Series,” says Jared Orton, President of the Savannah Bananas. “We know we're never going to be the best baseball team on earth, but could we be the most entertaining and most fun baseball team on earth? That's our mission, that's our vision.”
What does it mean to be the most entertaining baseball team on earth? It means that you arrive at the field to watch a real, competitive game. But you’ll also experience the unexpected.
“We're going to play in kilts some nights, we're going to have a dancing coach, a ballerina, a princess. We're going to have a dad-bod cheerleading squad, a senior citizen dance team called the Banana Nanas. We're going to have all these things so that if you're not a baseball fan, that's okay. You can come here, and you can identify with something fun and you can actually enjoy yourself.”
This in-venue experience also spills over to their digital world. Log on to their Instagram or TikTok accounts and you’ll see game highlights, but you’ll also see players diving into kiddie pools while the batter awaits a pitch, flash mob dances, and players barbequing in the dugout to feed their teammates - mid-game.
“We have this mindset of we're a media company, we're an entertainment company,” Orton explains. “Yes, we have a sports property, but we've got to generate wonderful content for people that they're going to enjoy, but it's got to be on brand for us. That's the biggest thing that we originally struggled with: who are the Savannah Bananas? What do people want to see from us? What are they enjoying?”
So far the Banana’s strategy is working. They’re popular amongst different generations, demographics and socioeconomic groups. Their success comes from their innovative mindset: continuously asking themselves what has never been done that their fans would want to see? How can they entertain the masses? Can they put a drone in the air to broadcast the game? (Spoiler alert: the answer is yes). Can they have their players compete in a "Dancing With The Stars" style competition where they dance with professionals on the field and get booted by fans? (We’re still waiting for the results of this one).
“Maybe it flops, maybe no one watches it. Maybe no one cares,” Orton says of their ideas. “Maybe people think it's the dumbest thing on earth. But what we've told our team is, ‘you know what, we tried and if it doesn't work and people don't watch it, we'll learn from it and we'll try something else next time. We're not failures, it's not going to end our company.’”
Years of thinking this way has helped them become an overnight success.
The Savannah Bananas have been gaining popularity and selling out baseball stadiums that until recently stood nearly empty. Ten thousand people came out to see them in Alabama. They travel for games within their league, playing "regular" teams that are just as entertained by their antics as fans are. They’ve also introduced the concept of Banana Ball, their new, faster, more engaging version of baseball.
Banana Ball games are limited to two hours and allow fans to get involved from their seats - if they catch a ball it counts as an out. They’re looking for ways for spectators to have an experience like no other, and are taking their game on the road. They’ve already played several games of Banana Ball in different venues over the last few years, but looking ahead they want to become a travelling team with 70 games, perhaps some of them outside of the U.S.
The Bananas’ mindset trickles down from management to everyone at the organization.
“Throughout the entire process, whether you're a player, coach or staff member, you've got to understand what we're trying to do,” says Orton. “If you want to buy into that, you are going to fit in really, really well here.”
“We take our work seriously. We have an intense desire to be great and we want to take things seriously. But we don't take ourselves too seriously and we give ourselves permission, give our team permission, to have fun. When you're able to do that inside the culture, the performance of your staff, your people, your team, and especially the players, gets elevated because there isn’t as much intense pressure.”
Many of the players who have come through the Bananas have noticed that by the end of the season their game has improved. Some players who faced the Bananas as opponents voiced their willingness to join the team.
The Bananas, it seems, have used innovative thinking to take America’s pastime and give it the facelift it has long needed. They aren’t the best team, the richest, with the biggest budgets and flashiest technologies. But they are the most entertaining, and fans are buying in.