In Case You Missed It: How to Create Raving Fans with Jesse Cole, Owner of the Savannah Bananas Baseball Team
This week we’re throwing it back to own of our favorite episodes this year with Jesse Cole. Jesse is the founder of Fans First Entertainment and owner of the Savannah Bananas. His teams have welcomed more than one million fans to their ballparks and have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, ESPN and in Entrepreneur Magazine.
The Bananas have been awarded Organization of the Year, Entrepreneur of the Year, Business of the Year and won the CPL Championship in their first year. Fans First Entertainment has been featured on the INC 5000 lists as one of the fastest growing companies in America.
The views, information, or opinions expressed during this show are solely those of the participants involved and do not necessarily represent those of SouthState Bank and its employees.
Intro:Helping community bankers grow themselves their and their profits. This is the Community Bank Podcast.
Eric Bagwell: Welcome to the community bank podcast. I’m Eric Bagwell, Director of Sales and Marketing for the correspondent division at South State Bank. Joining me today, the first time this year I think Tom, we’ve been avoiding each other and I don’t know why I still like you.
Tom Fitzgerald: Did we break up?
Eric Bagwell: I think we did for a little while, but we’re back to get.
Tom Fitzgerald: You ghosted me.
Eric Bagwell: Tom Fitzgerald, Director of the strategy here in the correspondent division is with us and then this is the first Caleb Stevens who has become the number three-hitter in the lineup. I guess he’s a regular now because Caleb’s with us today to Caleb, you doing all right?
Caleb Stevens: Doing great. We finally got the trio all together on one show, which is pretty fun. Usually, it’s just one of us or two of us together. So good to have all three of us.
Eric Bagwell: That’s right. And this is a big show. We were excited to have it today. Jesse Cole, owner of the Savannah Bananas, and we just thought we all needed to be on this one. Caleb gives us some background. We interviewed Jesse and tell him about this show. We’re excited about it.
Caleb Stevens: Yes. So, I’ve been following Jesse for a couple of years because he’s been on so many different podcasts. But He’s the owner of Fans First Entertainment, which is the parent company for the Savannah Bananas baseball team. And what’s interesting is they’re not even a minor league team. They’re a summer College League baseball team. But their tickets have a waiting list in the 1000s to attend one of their games. It’s crazy. And he has cracked the code on what does it look like to make baseball fun again, and entertain people and make it something that isn’t slow isn’t boring. That’s the knock-on baseball, it’s slow It’s boring It’s dragged on. And it’s just boring. And he has a waiting list literally in the 1000s for his game.
And so, it’s an awesome conversation about real marketing. And what’s interesting is they spend $0, on marketing, it’s all word of mouth. It’s all about creating experiences where you go home and you tell your family, you wouldn’t believe what happened today at the ballpark, you wouldn’t believe what happened at the game. And that just spreads. And they’re intentional about creating remarkable experiences. And so, I think it’s highly relevant for our listeners, even though none of us are in the baseball industry. We’re not in the sporting industry, we’re not in the entertainment industry. But making things fun and creating remarkable experiences for whoever your customers are is relevant. So, I’m super excited for folks to hear the conversation.
Eric Bagwell: Absolutely. And who would have ever thought we’d had the owner of a team and it was the toughest ticket to get in all of baseball. If you told me that six months ago, I’d have been, man, [cross-talking 2:37]. No doubt. It’s a waiting list for sure. As usual, before we get to the interview fast, though, Tom, give us an update a little bit on the market this week. I know you guys have a podcast you’re recording Thursday, tell us about what we’re looking at in the markets.
Tom Fitzgerald: Well, we’ve got the fed meeting. And you’re right, we’ve got to balance this show, which is going to be a really fun show. We got to balance that with more serious shows. So, we’re going to have another one of our investment roundtables to kind of go over, where are we so far in 2021? And where should we be positioning our portfolio for the balance of the year, and joining me will be Greg Raines. And Chad McKeithen, from our Duncan Williams group. So, you’ll want to take a listen to that. Not as fun as this show. But I think it’ll be informative and useful as well.
Eric Bagwell: Absolutely. And that show will actually you hearing this show, but that show will have already been recorded and out there, but still will have relevant information. So, go back and listen to that one. So, we appreciate you guys listening. And let’s get to the interview right now with Jesse Cole. Jesse Cole, it’s great to have you on our podcast today. How are you doing?
Jesse Cole: I am fired up to be with you guys. Today. I have a little bit of fun.
Eric Bagwell: Awesome. We’re excited to have you and for our listeners who have never heard of the Savannah bananas. And I love minor league baseball games. I mean, they’re great. There’s a lot of great hockey names as well. But the Savannah Bananas are awesome. Love the logo, you guys have done just amazing things in Savannah. Give us a little backstory about how you came to own this team. And, and a little bit about yourself as well.
Jesse Cole: Sure, well, in Savannah bananas shouldn’t even exist today. In reality, we’re five years old, but we started with a challenging time, to say the least. I remember my wife and I ran a team and gas Stoney in North Carolina that was struggling when I first started only $200 in the bank account and no one coming to the games. And then we took over we decided to buy a baseball team. My friends, in our early 30s we’re all buying, you know iPads, I watch and we decided to buy a baseball team and it was not the smartest buy in the world because we bought it an expansion team in Savannah, Georgia where baseball had failed for the last 90 years.
And we came in and it was myself, my wife, our 24-year-old President 3 22-year-olds and we said we’re going to try to create something special and unique and we came into Savannah and we proceeded to sell two total tickets in the first six months, and it was a joke. It got so bad as we had to sell our house empty our savings account. We’re sleeping on an air bed trying to make ends meet. But we had a vision we had a goal that we could make baseball more fun. We just didn’t have the hearts of our fans. We didn’t have the attention. So, we had to do something dramatically different. And fortunately, we came out with naming the team of Savannah bananas, we came up with a senior citizen dance team called the banana nanas, a male cheerleading team called the mananas.
But now they’re just referred to as the dadbod cheerleading squad, we came up with a breakdancing first base coach mascot split, and just made it a circus. And low and behold, five years later, we find a fortune to sell at every single game and have a waitlist for tickets and 1000. So, the story is just about a guy that wanted to have some fun and create something special. And with a lot of failures, we’ve been able to do that.
Caleb Stevens: Well, I love your book, Jesse and for folks listening, go out and get this book. It’s called Find your Yellow Tux really interesting book refreshing read on how do you do marketing differently. And it’s fun. And Jesse, one point you make in the book that I would like to kind of hear you riff on a little bit is you talk about the difference between being different, and being random. And what you guys do is not just random, you’re not just sort of thinking of, we’re just going to do something random today. It’s very intentional. But it’s also very different talk about the difference because I think people could go to a game or see what you guys are doing with all these crazy things, all these different ideas, and say, how do we do that? Is this just random? Are they just throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks? Or is it intentional? So, talk about that a little bit?
Jesse Cole: Well, the name of our company is Fans First Entertainment. And if two words made us who we are, if that whole mindset of fans first and so we put ourselves in our customer’s shoes. I mean even today every game one of us goes undercover and parks with the fans walked in with the fans sits with the fans eats with the fans and has an experience and we realize there’s a problem with baseball and the fact that it is too long too slow too boring for many people and we had to make it more entertaining. So, we do a lot of crazy stuff but we’re guided by these fans the first mindset and I think often we don’t put ourselves in our customer’s shoes and we’ll be called fans you know if I’m running a bank, we talk about our clients we talk about people we stirrup, but we don’t ever think necessarily about them as fans. I’m on a mission to change the mindset name someone right now or some business that you guys are a fan of I’d love to hear the names some them.
Caleb Stevens: Chick-fil-a would be one. Disney [cross-talking 7:24].
Jesse Cole: Chick-fil-a, Disney. I hear those two all the time. There’s a different mindset. When people talk about chick-fil-a talk about Disney, they get excited. They want to go experience they want to do it. They’re a fan of it. And so, what would it take to have unbelievable fans of a bank, they know they want to wear the bank’s merchandise, they want to do it? So, we tried to take that mindset with our team, what do we do to make everything that creates fans. And so that’s how we built our model. And it’s been crazy to see what’s happened now because it’s built on mapping the journey every step and looking at one of those frustration points for fans and doing the exact opposite. And we try to eliminate those and every step of the way.
Tom Fitzgerald: And I just wanted to say, Jesse, I was doing a little bit of research yesterday, before the show came across a YouTube, it was almost a documentary of your journey with the bananas. And it spoke to me because the one part where you and your wife were at the ballpark before you own the team, I guess the previous team was still there. And you were sitting there in this beautiful old Park. And there were just a few, maybe 100 people in the stands, if that. And that spoke to me because I grew up in Florida and my dad would take me to a lot of the minor league games that the Florida State League, a Class A-League, and we would go to the cocoa Astros, which was the closest team that we had. And there’d be the same thing there’d be 100 people in the stands.
And it kind of struck me then that they didn’t mark it as much. It’s certainly not what you’re doing. But it was almost they said, we’ve got this great product of professional baseball, you guys should come to see it. So, there wasn’t that connection of wanting to get the fans there, it was almost you should want to come to our game. And so, I think the marketing that you’re doing, and it’s kind of spread across a lot of the minor leagues at this point, but you certainly have taken it to a different level. So, as I said that that documentary and I would sort of getting all of our listeners if they can look up you know, search YouTube, I’m sure for Savannah Bananas, it’ll come across. That’s a good 15 or 20-minute expos they have kind of how you’ve had that journey of wanting to start a ballclub and then we’re where it’s come today. I just it was really heartwarming and very entertaining. So, just one I want to give you that shout-out.
Jesse Cole: I appreciate and It’s interesting. When you talk about marketing, we spend $0 marketing. And so, what we did in the beginning, we failed when we only sold two tickets. We were marketing like crazy. We were putting on ads in the newspaper, we’re doing social media, we were doing everything but I don’t believe people want to be marketed to they don’t want to be sold to they don’t want to be, they don’t want to be promoted to they don’t be advertised to. People want to buy, and they want to buy something they believe in. So, how do you show that in a way without trying to sell people stuff? Many times, we see ads, we got this deal, this interest rate, buy this, come on, get us, no. So, we just want to show people having fun, and show the experience. And that was really how we built the model. But first, we had to get attention. And I think a lot of times attention beats marketing, why should people get into it.
Tom Fitzgerald: Well, and you guys come up with so many crazy ideas and kind of out-of-the-box thinking, is there a method to the madness? Do you have sort of a process? Or is it just more happenstance and I’m sure, is there some kind of a filtering process to where you say, maybe not this idea?
Jesse Cole: Yes, well, we have the five Es to create raving fans that we’ve developed. And so quickly, I’ll share those. And then I’m going to start the starting point. Number one, eliminate friction, you have to look at every friction point that your customers have. And that’s huge for us. I’m a big fan of Walt Disney. And he said, whenever I go on a ride, I’m always asking what’s wrong with this thing? And how can it be improved? How often do we go in and look at every touchpoint? Is there a friction point? That’s number one for us. Number two is entertaining always. Alright, I think you look, you’re an entertainer. You’re in a yellow tux. You’re a circus guy who’s running a baseball team. This doesn’t work for a bank. The definition of entertainment is to provide enjoyment and to provide amusement. Aren’t we all in the entertainment business? So, we question how do we entertain every step of the way. The third thing is to experiment constantly.
We’re so constantly focused on the way things may be used to be this used to work. But we’re constantly experimenting, Jeff Bezos said, our success is a direct function of how many experiments we do per year, per month, per week, per day. So, experiments are huge. The fourth one engaged deeply, how do we engage focus on love more than like, focus on the people that love us and really engage them and listen carefully and respond creatively to what matters to them. And then finally, it empowers action. We want to inspire, empower our fans to be a part of it. Our fans make all the decisions, who are going to pitch their games, they’ve decided which ones It was a disaster because they picked a pitcher who led up six runs in the ninth inning, we lost that wasn’t the best decision, but we empower our fans to feel part of the brand, pick the shirts, pick the designs, be a part of it, have a say.
And then you can empower your team to also have a say to and so when we put those five E’s together, that’s the model to how we do it. And we have constant idea Palooza is where we bring our team together. We talk about ideas to eliminate friction to entertain, how can we try something new or get closer to our fans or empower them to be involved, and that’s what’s guiding us and making these decisions.
Eric Bagwell: Jesse, Tom, and I are closer in age than Caleb, Caleb’s not probably seen the baseball that we grew up seeing and I listened to one of your podcasts one time, you talked about the problems with baseball and I agree, I think you hit it spot on, you know, with the slowness factor, and it’s just total opposite of what you guys are doing. And I think he even mentioned this guy, Bill Veeck famous baseball owner back in the days, and I remember being a kid and seeing pictures of Eddy Gadelle, three-foot seven, batting for the St. Louis browns, and they got fans involved with all that. And he was a he was like a visionary almost before his time because I’m sure baseball is very stuffy back then. And now obviously, it’s a little more corporate. And so, you don’t see that stuff. But tell us more specifically about some of the things, you guys have done. You hit on one a minute ago where the pitcher got there the fans chose the pitcher. Tell us about some other stuff you guys have done.
Jesse Cole: Now. It’s funny that you brought up Eddie Gadelle, the world’s smallest hitter. Two weeks ago, we had tryouts for our new premier team. We’re taking the show on the road. And a player we asked everyone entertaining and he goes, I can wear stills and he showed up and took batting practice and stills. And so, a Saturday game we haven’t told anybody tells now. We’re going to have a batter come in the middle of the game on stilts and pit in the game as the world’s top hitter. I hope he doesn’t get hit. I hope he doesn’t fall over. I have no idea what’s going to happen. But that’s part of the experiment and constantly. But here, one idea I’ll paint a journey of how fans you go through our experience.
So, if that’ll help give you a little bit of specific so yes when fans buy a ticket, the first thing that happens they’ll get the video sent to them and we do a different one each year. The one that was a part of two years ago. It begins with congrats you just made the best decision of your day right now is your ticket order came in a high priority siren went off at our stadium and our biennial rushed to the ticket laboratory to reduce your tickets, then a banana nana slowly walked in and hand-selected your tickets and placed them on a sales call. We raised the sell pillow to the air and saying Nah Sylvania here to celebrate the birth of a new fan. And then we watched your tickets down to our vault with our national security ready for you to go bananas. So, that’s the first step so they get that video. Most people are what just happened, alright, but you think about regular payment congregations or when people buy something from you or interact with you what happens make it fun. So, then after that, every single person who buys merchandise from us or buys a ticket from us gets a thank you call. So, we call it to thank them. It’s crazy. There are 1000s but we separated between everyone.
And often now people don’t answer their phones because of unknown numbers. So, I’ll do a video from the outfield. It’s Jesse with Sandman, just want to thank you so much for getting your bananas hat. It’s going to be arriving in two days. Thanks for going bananas with us. Hopefully, we’ll see at the park soon. And they got a video texted to them. After they bought the merchandise, or they bought a ticket. Then if they bought a ticket then after that, we’ll send a playlist of music that they should listen to coming to the game. So, for instance, can’t stop the peeling, which is one of our big songs, hay days, which everyone’s stadium does, we play those songs as they come to the ballpark.
Then as they’re coming up, the first thing you’ll probably see is our parking penguins, and we have two people in penguin costumes, parking your car, which makes very little sense, but we think penguins and it’s funny so we think it’s interesting, and they give them freezie pots to kids as they walk by after that they may see our march as fans we have our whole band our bananas our man and as everyone’s doing a march playing music setting the tone for the opening of the gates will play Hey Baby, we’ll play our classics that are ticket takers are in ticket banana costumes, ripping your banana shape tickets in the past, which used to be scratched and stiff.
But now we’re digital more because of COVID. But we have a professional high fiver. So, you’re going through all this experience before you get into the game. Because you set the tone. The first impression is so important. When someone comes to your bank for the first time they go to your website, they buy all that matters. So, that gives you a little idea. Even our bathrooms, our rivals making bacon, and we got making bacon journal cakes, so our fans are paying on arrival. So, we have a lot of fun with that stuff. We just bought making bacon toilet paper two. We’re not afraid to talk about number two in our league. So, we have a lot of fun with that. But that gives you an idea on a little bit of the experience, but maybe something that might be fitting if you’re interested this Eric would be our invoices.
We’ve changed our invoices because everyone has invoices. Why are they the same? Why are they boring? When we send out things make it fun. So, we change this, this is our new invoice. Congrats, this is your day, the day you’ve been waiting for today is the day you get to pay. You may think you’ve had days like this the day you bought your first house the day you bought your first car, or maybe your first all-inclusive vacation, but nothing is quite like bananas payday. So, pull out your money order savings bond, Bitcoin, gold cash, credit card, or cheque and make that payment like we know you can we believe in you. This is your moment now seize it, your life will never be the same love, Jesse Cole. And so that’s how people get invoices now. So, you look at every touchpoint and say, is this remarkable? Is this different? And we’ve talked before about hold music and voicemails. It’s a huge opportunity. It starts with one of those friction points. A pay point is a pain point. Fresh frustration points. Friction points can be remarkable if you think about him differently.
Caleb Stevens: Well, my parents have their roots in Macon, Georgia going to the old Luther Williams ballpark, I hope they don’t listen to this because I have been to a few games down there. I guess back before it was the Macon Braves a long time ago. But that’s hilarious. Okay, so I’m sure right now we have bankers who are listening. And they’re saying, Jesse, that’s great for you guys. But you’re a baseball team, that people go to sporting events to get entertained, to escape to have fun with their friends. I work in banking, and this is a different industry. I don’t know if this relates to me. What would you say to that banker? Who’s thinking, this is cool. But does this apply to someone like me?
Jesse Cole: I work in baseball, where 95% of the people say the game is very boring, traditional, they’re not going to go to it. Alright. I know baseball many you’re, what’s a sporting event? Not these days, the average baseball fan is in their 60s. They don’t have young fans anymore. If you ask, youth 12 and under who their favorite athlete is in the top 50. There are no baseball players. So, baseball is a dying sport. And I’m saying that as an owner of a baseball team. So, you can very easily say from a bank standpoint, this doesn’t fit. But I’ll tell you this if you want your people to have a purpose, and everyone that’s a part of something and feel they’re doing something special, you got to make sure that they’re doing something different, something remarkable. I believe that our people feel proud because they get to hear the stories of our members and our fans saying, wow, look what just happened and their stories every day. And I can share some later. So, from a banking standpoint, you tell me this.
Do people want to have the same experience they’ve always had? And I will say this is professional, something we want to be proud of. I mean, who goes home and says Honey, I met the most professional person today. He was just so professional. Alright, we don’t talk like that. I understand the need for professionalism. But what we need I believe, is fun smiles be able to come home and say you know what the bank did for me today? Do you know what the bank was about today? When I walked into the bank, this is what they did. They had a party to celebrate with me. And we worked with some banks, small banks up in Paducah, Kentucky, where they have a high fiver, they have a high fiver. As I said, when they come in, they’re setting the tone for people coming in the bank. COVID has challenges now. But what are those things that you can make people feel special? Those are the questions.
So, I think for a bank, and I know Caleb, you believe in this, the question is, are you willing to be misunderstood a little bit in the beginning, because you know what? What’s going to happen is one person’s not going to like it, and you’re going to want to quit, we get criticized about everything, guys, we just invented a brand-new game we’re playing right now we’re playing banana ball Nationally, we’re going on one city World Tour, which makes no sense in the middle of the pandemic, but we’re going on a one city World Tour, and we’re going to Mobile, Alabama. And people are I don’t know what to expect. But they’re this is weird. This is crazy. But we’re going to give it a shot. You have to experiment. So, I would just challenge that banker and say, pick one thing that you can make a little bit more fun? Is it your voicemail? Is it how you answered the phone? Is it just something and see what happens? Maybe your people will enjoy work more, and your customers will come to fans because they’ll enjoy it more as well.
Tom Fitzgerald: And I would say to Jesse, kind of what just listening to this, what flows through all of it is that you appreciate the fans and to appreciate customers, and to engage them in the product, you’re not just coming to a ballgame you’re going to be part of the entertainment. And so, I think that it’s obvious that that’s part of the culture that you’ve developed, is there one aspect of that culture that has let these ideas or let this environment that you created flourish?
Jesse Cole: Yes, it’s the simplicity of who we are and what we stand for. Our company is fans first entertainment. Our mission is fans first entertained all the ways every decision we make, is it fans first. And so, I’ll give you two quick stories about that how interns understand us, you can’t get a job without doing fans first essay without doing a video cover letter and a future resume but what you want to do with us, and then we have fans first view of what we teach everything about looking at these opportunities to deliver great experiences for fans. And again, listen carefully respond creatively. We have conversations and ask questions to fans on what matters. So, an intern one weekend with us. It’s pouring rain, which at baseball games is a nightmare, as you guys know. And we’re walking all our fans to their cars.
So, we line up all the players with umbrellas. And we walk our fans to the car is one of our interns. 21 years old, and I watch an older gentleman. She’s, would you like to walk home or walk to your car. [inaudible 22:25]. So, she’s gone. And she’s gone for 30 minutes. And I’m, where’s Lauren? She comes back and she’s soaking wet. And I go, Lauren, what happened? Where were you? She goes, I walked to that gentleman home, I go, you walked him home, it was an older Gen. She’s he said he was right down the corner. It was about a mile down the road, I walked him to his doorstep. And I go that is crazy. She goes fans first, right. And just that mindset of a 22-year-old to understand that matters most. And so, during COVID when it first started the lockdown, we had another member said on Facebook, I’ll do anything for Oreo cookies and milk. I didn’t know this happened.
But our ticket experience corner went to the grocery store, got Oreo cookies and milk, drove it to her house, put it in her mailbox, send a message, check your mailbox. And there was Oreo cookies and milk in our mailbox. She went nuts. She shared it. As Andy Stanley says do for one what you wish you could do for many. We have to listen to these opportunities. And we teach our team to find these unique opportunities where we can love our fans and care about them and do something special. And that creates stories that resonate around our entire company. And we keep looking for those. Everyone has core beliefs. You guys in the banks, everyone’s core beliefs. But do you have stories that backup those core beliefs? And we look for those stories that share how loving how caring how fun, how enthusiastic that we’re trying to be with everything. So that helps.
Eric Bagwell: Well Jesse, it’s been great having you on the podcast today just so many great things. And I think it applies to when no matter what business you’re in, but especially anything in banking. When I first heard about you guys, Kayla puts you on me. I immediately went home checked it out, listen to a couple of podcasts, and then got it from my 16-year-old son and he is just dying to come to a game so tell everybody how they can get in touch with you guys and tell us about the games. I think you’ve had a bunch of sellouts in a row so the tickets may be hard to get but tell us about how they can get in touch with you and hopefully come to Savannah to a game.
Jesse Cole: I appreciate it well we’re all over the place we got videos on YouTube and Facebook and so you can search the [inaudible 24:22] you’ll find us, every ticket is sold out. So, we have a waitlist for tickets which is pretty cool. I think there might be a few games in July that there sell some tickets to but you know man we’re just trying to entertain. So, watch your videos and enjoy hopefully we can entertain there’s an opportunity that we can put on a show for you and hopefully in the banking industry too. We can start creating some more fans as well because I think we all need that. We need that especially now we need some more happiness more fun. So, I appreciate the opportunity with the guys.
Eric Bagwell: Awesome man. Thanks for being on and just to say this to you really quick. We’re sitting here looking at Jessie and he is wearing a yellow tuxedo. Just for this podcast. I think this might be you wear this around Savannah, I guess when people see you out.
Jesse Cole: I wish you’re saying just for this podcast. I do love you guys. But unfortunately, I have seven of these and I wear them all day every day when I’m working. So, this is my uniform.
Eric Bagwell: He lives it. He lives what he talks, man. Thanks for being with us today. We appreciate it.
Jesse Cole: Thanks, guys.
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