by Holly Horning

Baseball is a sport in peril.  For well over a decade now, its fan base has declined every year.  It also has professional sports oldest fan base.  And today’s hurry-up habits are contradictory to the game’s lengthy and plodding pace.

And now, regional tv networks can no longer afford to televise the games because of decreasing interest.  MLB has created a special committee to try to solve the problem.

Several years ago, Theo Epstein was appointed by the Commissioner to try to come up with some ideas to help save the game. We have to assume that some of his work involved the rule changes of ghost runners, changes in the shift, pitch clocks and bigger bases.

But if Rob Manfred was smart, he would have hired Jesse Cole instead.

Jesse is the only one in baseball who has brought the interest back to the game.  And in a very big way.

Cole is the owner of the Savannah Bananas baseball team, formerly part of the Coast Plain League and now an exhibition/barnstorming team.

The Bananas have sold out every single game they have played since 2016 – a full 7 years of complete sell-outs.

I was reminded of the Bananas on my recent trip to Savannah.  Unfortunately, they were down in Florida at spring training and I couldn’t get my fix.

I have tweeted about them whenever I find stellar video to share. Mr. Cole has also dutifully tweeted back.  He is a fully-immersed owner.

So what is Banana Ball?

It is quality baseball albeit with some different rules.  The players are competitive and serious athletes – most being young, solid talent.  And most of those rules are in response what fans want to see.

They include:

  • A strict 2-hour time limit on games.
  • Avoiding blow out games.  Teams that score the most runs in an inning get 1 point except for the 9th where every run scored earns a point.  The team posting the highest point total in an inning wins that inning and gets a point.  The first team to earn 5 points wins the game, even if the game doesn’t go 9 innings.
  • Bunting is not allowed.  Anyone who bunts is ejected from the game.
  • Batters cannot step outside of the batter’s box.  Violating that rule is an automatic strike.
  • Batter can also try to steal 1st base if there is a wild pitch or passed ball.
  • Walks are called sprints.  On the 4th ball, the hitter can run the bases as fast as he can.  While doing that, the players must throw the ball sequentially to each other.  The runner then stops at a “safe” base once that drill has been completed or a fielder may try to throw him out.  And it creates a scenario where in-the-park home runs may be possible.
  • Managers and coaches are forbidden to visit the mound.  Any changes they want to make has to be yelled from the dugout.
  • Foul balls caught by fans are counted as outs.  (How great is that?)

Cole said these changes were dictated by fans.  And those fans, a much younger fan base, are growing by the thousands.  No one leaves a game early.  He said that baseball has to “enliven itself, aggressively.”

He added that the no-stepping-out-of-the-batter’s-box rule is essential to speed up play in any game.  That rule came out of his experience watching an MLB player take a 30-second break after every pitch.

The game has been described as “all gas, no breaks.”  And appropriately, their manager is Eric Byrnes.  He finally found his calling.

And fans can’t get enough.

But the insanity doesn’t stop with the game rules.

Their mascot is called Split.  (Think about it.)  They have 2 sets of cheerleaders:  senior citizen grandmothers called the Banana Nanas and the men who are called Mananas.

Coaches and players dance on occasion, gymnastics are performed on the bases and in the outfield.

One of my personal fave moments is their interpretation of players’ walk up songs. It involves an entire band following the hitter up to the plate.

The team uniform is, naturally, bright yellow.  Even Cole wears a head to toe yellow tux (including top hat) and works the crowd at games.

And the players have been known to wear kilts on occasion.

But don’t think this is a stunt.  There is quality baseball being played even though Jesse does stipulate that he puts “entertainment” above “baseball.”

It’s not just their fan base that is growing.  There is a movement here where interest and attendance is growing throughout this league.  And part of this is the determined effort to break down the barriers between the players and fans.

What is startling is that the Savannah Bananas have 2 million more followers than the top MLB team.

What does that say?

There have been more than a few national baseball writers who have indicated that MLB has much to learn about how to build their market – and that by taking a cue from the Savannah Bananas would be wise.

So why all the fuss over this team?

Watch it for yourself:

I’ve now found another valid reason to return to Savannah – during the baseball season, that is. I wonder if tickets for next year are on sale yet…

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39 thoughts on “GOING BANANAS

  1. Kudos to the owner for finding gimmicks that work, but if every team did this I think they would lose the curiosity factor. They seem to be a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Not sure much of this would work on the MLB level.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. Sorry, but I just don’t find the Bananas “apealing” (ouch). They’re drawing crowds for the entertainment value – but so does a circus. Give me the real game, but with changes to speed up play and produce more game action.

    Liked by 3 people

    • They call themselves a “baseball circus” on their web site and it delightfully counterbalances the “science” of today’s MLB. Still I like better the way the Padres have sold out much of their season! Thanks for sharing a nice change of pace, Holly.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I try to catch the live stream of their games on You Tube…non stop entertainment beginning to end. These are talented athletes who are also talented performers and it’s obvious they love it. I’m still trying to get tickets to a game in September.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I am going to sound old-fashioned and cantankerous, but: 1) should MLB really look to this “Harlem Globetrotters” sideshow of baseball amusement for salvation? and 2) are Bally’s problems more a result of overpaying their original purchase price and less of declining viewership?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi, Brooks – To answer your second question, Bally’s (and others) main problem has been a combo of declining viewership and fans cutting the cord. Baseball has been declining in viewership and attendance every year since 2007 and almost since 6% since last year. The primary reason they give is that games are long and boring. It takes more time to watch than any other sport. Only 11% of adults say it’s their favorite sport while only 7% of people under 30 name it. MLB needs all the ideas they can get and there are some lessons that the Bananas can teach them before things get worse for the sport. – Holly

      Liked by 3 people

      • I remember when the ABA’s three point basketball shot seemed like a heretical gimmick. Baseball really tries to milk the playoffs for the excitement. I agree with Holly that they have to be alert to ways of engaging a younger audience other than gambling.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I wonder if part of the decline in viewership has to do with Bally playing “hardball” with other streaming services. They couldn’t agree with YouTube TV nor Hulu in order to broadcast the games. Not enough people will pay cable prices to watch baseball.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. A good place to start would be to cut ticket prices by 50%, stop gouging fans for concessions and stop the ridiculously loud music during innings. I love going to MLB games but with hotel costs and ticket costs it’s become too expensive for most people to afford.

    Liked by 9 people

  6. MLB needs to understand they’re never going to have the pace of the NFL. If they try they will ruin our beautiful game. Baseball is a languid, slow, precise summer game. I expect to spend three to four hours on a summer evening enjoying the concessions at the stadium, a warm summer night, and long conversations about the game with friends. I go to games to slow down and refresh my sometimes all too active mind.

    Liked by 6 people

  7. Sounds like banana ball is pure entertainment, and not really for pro competition. Some of their ideas make good sense like not allowing batters to leave the batter’s box, but most of their differences from the major leagues are for show, as in pro wrestling, and not good for baseball.

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Hi, All – So I will pose a question here for everyone to consider. With so many writing off this entertaining format because it’s not pure, traditional baseball, how will you solve MLB’s serious problem that endangers its viability? The game can’t go on as it has been doing and simply wishing that more and younger fans will suddenly join in with little to no change is folly.

    Fans have shown what they want to see in games and MLB isn’t providing it. They universally want shorter games, more action and more excitement. Aren’t there aspects of Banana Ball (and there are other teams doing similar things) that can be adopted or modified that could save traditional baseball from its slow death? – Holly

    Liked by 1 person

      • I agree with spartan and hope any changes would not affect historical records. Things like 3-ball walks and 2-strike outs would leave us with pages of asterisks in the records of the game. But reasonable ways to increase offense (like lowering the pitching mound a few more inches) should be fair game.

        Liked by 2 people

    • I keep hearing people complain about baseball being “too slow and boring”, yet football, with its 3+ hour games and roughly 15 minutes of actual game action time, isn’t? Football also has more commercial breaks than any other sport. Something here doesn’t make sense to me.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I am not disagreeing that younger people find baseball slow and boring. Some changes may help but probably not long term. The changes made by banana ball are fun but they fundamentally change the game enough that it is really a new sport. If traditional baseball can’t survive as is then so be it. Making that many changes for the sake of viewership is basically starting a new sport.

      Liked by 4 people

  9. Obviously, MLB would never become straight Banana Ball. But major improvements to the pace, entertainment, and youthful appeal of MLB are in order. The first goal is to get more baserunners. There ought to be a scoring threat nearly every inning. Let under 18 fans accompanied by an adult in for free now and then. Have a few players meet fans to sign autographs and do a “Superbowl halftime show” at the 7th inning stretch once every two weeks.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I agree that there could be more promotional ideas implemented on an occasional basis as you suggest. I liked the idea of a caught foul ball in the stands recorded as an out. So, for example, once every couple of weeks have a fan participation day where that rule applies.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Any product has to connect generationally to to provide long term growth. I don’t see pro baseball getting involved with youth baseball. Just mom and dads in travel ball. They also need players to stick around so you can identify with a team.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. They have taken up the idea of quicker games with the new rules this year. The Minor Leagues are still very popular as are the Semi Pro leagues around.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Some crazy ideas – Cut the game down to 7 innings, reduce the count to 3 balls and 2 strikes, reduce the number of teams in the league so the talent level isn’t so watered down, shorten the season, have entertaining announcers and no analysts (just color commentators who’s job is to provide hype/entertainment and never mention analytics) on free streaming services, limit pitching changes to one an inning (barring injury), and reduce ticket prices.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The rule changes this year are going to speed the game up which is a step in the right direction. In Detroit, they need to cut prices and make the ballpark experience more family friendly while increasing revenue by increased attendance. The Tiger-Yankee game last night was unwatchable after 5 innings because the announcers were horrible. Get rid of these cookie cutter corporate announcers and get fan friendly announcers like Ernie and George.

    Liked by 5 people

  14. One step forward is the clock, especially as it applies to batters. Who thought of the player’s favorite song being played as a “Walk up”? I lived in the Tampa area for a while and attended many games at the hideous Tropicana Cave, aka field. The acoustics were terrible, to begin with, but adding a raucous rap song played at an ear-splitting volume was torture. Too many batters use their ABs as an ego-stroking strut. Ban the walk-up songs!

    Liked by 2 people

  15. I agree with Mechanical Man, as we are moving in the right direction. In addition, how about if only catcher can go to the mound and no stupid walk up music. Pitchers don’t bat so why not warm up before each inning in the bullpen.

    Liked by 4 people

  16. I wanted to point out that now, with MLB.TV, apparently you get access to your affiliates’ minor league games, and you can access these games on the MLB app. That is a fantastic move on the part of MLB, as watching MiLB games on a separate website, and without an app to go with it, was a pain. Good move, MLB—that is a marketing move I can applaud.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Andy, I concur that it was a good move for MLB to include MiLB games. To clarify, this year’s MLB.TV package provides access to more than 7,000 minor league games for affiliates of all major league clubs, not just your MLB team’s affiliates. I have had a MILB.TV subscription for several years now, and I have really enjoyed it, especially watching Tigers prospects.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. Short of bananas, do this: institute a salary cap, cut ticket and concession prices by 10-25 percent, tie future price increases to the cpi, have a $1,000 lottery per game for those in attendance, give daily free admission to everyone of a certain age. Then, figure out how to put a time limit per game and keep those changes that encourage that time limit. But consider that money, not just time, is what’s keeping people at home.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I’d love to see an owner who had the mindset of Bill Veeck. He had a knack of making things entertaining, wasn’t afraid to introduce new ideas, and generally maintained respect for the game itself. The game itself should be respected but for those who aren’t die hard fans, plenty of fun add-ons could occur between innings and through electronic media to engage those who care less about the strategy of the game and mostly just want to be entertained.

    Liked by 3 people

  19. That was entertaining (there is a North Woods League team here where I live) and they do some entertaining things between innings and while I don’t see MLB going all out on the “Banana” level they could certainly do a few things either before the game or during the 7th inning stretch


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