Kansas City will always hold a special place in Jesse Cole’s heart, shared the owner of the Savannah Bananas, baseball’s answer to the Harlem Globetrotters.
“You guys gave us our first shot,” explained Cole, the founder of Fans First Entertainment — fully outfitted in his signature yellow tux at Thursday’s Kansas City Area Development Council annual meeting.
For the 2,000 business, civic, and community leaders in attendance, Cole shared the story of how he swung for the fences and hit a home run with the “Greatest Show in Sports.”
He bought the team in 2015, went $1.8 million in debt — but held true to his mission of making baseball more fun; building a team and Savannah Bananas brand that have innovated on a pastime that’s dominated for more than 150 years, sold out stadiums across the country, and captivated fans on social media with their in-game choreographed dances.
Today theTikTok-famous team boasts 7.7 million followers on the video platform, along with more than 2.2 million on Instagram.
“[We’ve gone] from sleeping on an air bed seven years ago and selling our house to a waitlist that just passed over two million for tickets,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”
And Kansas City played a key position as Savannah Bananas’ strategy unfolded, Cole recalled.
Realizing a few years ago that fans were still leaving games early despite all the traditional entertainment on the field, Cole and his team invented Banana Ball — gameplay with new rules for baseball, making it fast-paced and more engaging.
Fans and the industry were skeptical.
But the Kansas City Monarchs called and said they’d love to host the Bananas at Legends Field in Kansas City, Kansas.
“Knowing the history of what the Monarchs meant to Negro League Baseball and the game of baseball, we said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do that,’” Cole told Startland News. “The experience we had in Kansas City — from the whole community, the fans, the Monarchs — gave us that permission to say, ‘You know what, we’re gonna take this all over the world.’”
“And now we’re doing Major League stadiums, we’re doing cruises, we’re going international, and it started here,” he continued.
Cole also gained validation from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and its president, Bob Kendrick.
“What the Negro Leagues did to try to stand out and be different, and how they were pioneers and everything inspired us to think like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna go against the grain. We’re not gonna do it the way everyone else has done it,’” Cole explained.
For him, that means a business mindset that isn’t all about revenue.
“It’s to create long-term fans over short-term profits,” Cole continued. “What we realized is that you can’t just chase customers, you’ve got to start creating fans. So we named our company Fans First. So everything was about creating fans, every single decision — no ticket fees; no convenience fees; no service fees; literally nonstop entertainment during the games. We started building just a different business model.”
Cole is all about creating an unforgettable experience for fans — from a pitcher on stilts to the Banana Nanas (the senior dance team) to the twerking umpire — and he encouraged local community leaders in attendance at games to take that mission to heart.
Like the Savannah Bananas, Kansas City has captured the world’s attention, Cole noted. Now that everyone is watching, it’s up to the Kansas City community to determine what kind of experience it will create for every single person who comes to the city.
“What you guys have accomplished in a short period of time — the NFL Draft and the World Cup coming, it’s special,” Cole explained. “I know you joked about (Taylor Swift) putting Kansas City on the map, but you guys have been on the map for a while. Now it’s up to you.”
“How do we map the moments when people come in for the World Cup and these other big moments that they say, ‘Wow, Kansas City, we’re never going to forget this?’” he added. “And how do you start creating those fans?”