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Four lessons on innovation from the most creative team in baseball

The opening day of the baseball season offers an opportunity to reflect on the arrival of spring, the childhood pleasures of skipping school for the ballpark, and for people like me who think about creativity and innovation, how difficult it can be to change an institution. which is in desperate need of reimagining and renovation. Almost everyone agrees, as a recent Sports Illustrated The analysis made clear that Major League Baseball games take too long and move too slowly, that so-called unwritten rules of on-field behavior end up excluding fun and spontaneity, and that the rise of analytics it has replaced human drama with algorithmic tyranny. It’s no wonder MLB now ranks behind the NFL and NBA in terms of popularity and star power.

That’s why it was so revealing and instructive to take a trip to Savannah, Georgia, away from the troubles of the big leagues, to visit an entrepreneur who is envisioning a different future for baseball by rewriting the rules of the game. . He is also developing some intriguing rules for innovation that apply far 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-ranking college players hone their skills and showcase their talents in hopes of being drafted. Cole purchased the team in October 2015 when it was known as the Savannah Sand Gnats and operated as a minor league affiliate of the New York Mets. As a business, the Gnats sank in quicksand. The team did not generate rumors and hardly had any fans. A few hundred spectators attended the home games, which were played at the 4,000-capacity Grayson Stadium, a legendary stadium that opened in 1926 and has hosted games by such immortals 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’s a 15,000-person waiting list 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 TikTok followers, twice as many as the most popular team in MLB, and devoted fans who start gathering at the stadium at 3 p.m. for games, four hours before first pitch. A feature in USA Today told the stories of fans who traveled to Savannah from Illinois, Indiana and even Alaska to see a game. ESPN Sports Center devoted a seven-minute segment to how the Bananas “have become the greatest spectacle in baseball.”

So what accounts for the Bananas’ growing popularity in a world where “nobody watches baseball anymore”? What have Jesse Cole and his colleagues learned about breathing new life into a dying business that could be applied to other businesses? I would highlight at least four lessons.

A winning business strategy starts with originality

The goal is not to be the best at what many others already do, it is to be the only one who does what you do. It’s hard to overstate Bananas’ different, distinctive and unique financial model. Game tickets are general admission, which is why fans line up early. The tickets are also all-inclusive (well, apart from the beer), which means you can watch a game, eat plenty of hot dogs and peanuts, and not get scammed for nine innings. Cole even eliminated corporate sponsorships and advertising inside the stadium: no messages on outfield walls, no spray-painted logos on the field. “Nobody comes to the stadium to be sold or advertised,” he told me, “so we got rid of that.” Today, 97% of the team’s total income comes directly from fans; merchandise sales generate six times what sponsorships once did.

Even a familiar product can be transformed into an unforgettable experience

Successful organizations create memorable customer encounters. This lesson is at the heart of what happens at Grayson Stadium. The Bananas may have to play by the established rules of baseball on the field, but the team has elevated everything about the game to unimaginable levels of energy and entertainment. Sure, many minor league baseball teams have fun tricks. But the Bananas put on a show. The team has its own pep band, a group of male cheerleaders, and a beloved 65+ female dance team called the Banana Nanas. Cole himself is a huge presence at every game, dressed in a blinding yellow tuxedo and top hat, waving to fans outside the stadium and leading the cheers inside the stadium. “The game has gotten 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 going to put on a show, get everyone involved.

Performances can happen anywhere you interact with customers. College players sign up with the Bananas to compete hard in a 55-game season that runs from late May through early August. But even they are artists. 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 off their personalities. One of my favorites is a locker room video where a player recites Jonah Hill’s poetry tribute to Cynthia from the movie. 21 Jump Streetand the other players snap their fingers in approval.

Cole says that there are “five venues” where the Bananas organization has the opportunity to perform for its fans: the parking lot, the plaza in front of the stadium, the concourses inside the stadium, the grandstand, and the field, and that the team must deliver something memorable at every stage in every game. There is also a sixth stage, which consists of year-round conversations with fans. Team staff make 300,000 thank you calls a year to customers who buy tickets, order merchandise and engage with the organization.

Even the most creative groups have to keep pushing the boundaries of innovation.

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

Most importantly, the teams play a new version of baseball called Banana Ball, with nine rules that completely reshape the game. For example, the games have a time limit of two hours. Also, every entry counts; after the top and bottom of an inning, the team with the most runs gets a point, but the runs themselves do not carry over. There are no rides; after four balls, a batter “runs” to first base and beyond, and can be put out only after all nine defensive players have touched the ball—a rule that leads to wild choreography in the field. Cole compares the professional version of the Bananas to the Harlem Globetrotters, though unlike the hapless Washington Generals, the Party Animals can win. Cole has been testing 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. All games so far have sold out.

I’m not sure any sports league has been more resistant to change than Major League Baseball, with its smug owners, big player contracts and high-stakes 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 far from the national spotlight.

Perhaps that’s one more lesson in innovation from Cole and his colleagues: Sometimes the most creative ideas come from the least expected places. The very fact that an organization operates on the fringes, away from the bright lights and high pressures, creates a freedom to experiment and innovate that isn’t available to big league organizations.

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