Lessons from Leaders: How Jesse Cole and the Savannah Bananas Create the ‘Greatest Show Possible’

If you don’t know by now, we’re big fans of the Savannah Bananas.  

Inspired by Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum, Jesse Cole had a vision and has turned an independent collegiate summer baseball team into a global phenomenon. 

That vision is projected everywhere, from the ownership group (Fans First Entertainment) to the mission (“Fans First, Entertain Always”). The dancing players, Banana Nanas senior dance team and experiments like Dolce & Banana underwear have captured the attention of fans around the world, with  500K+ followers on Instagram and 2.7 million followers on TikTok.

This week, we welcome Jesse back to the podcast to discuss his newest book, Fans First: Change The Game, Break the Rules & Create an Unforgettable Experience. Jesse has 5 Es to building a Fans First organization, which he illustrates through dozens of stories about fans and from fans.

What Jesse understands above all else is, “The first fan is yourself.  You can’t create fans until you are a fan of what you do.”

Here’s how Jesse and his front office have become fans of the Savannah Bananas:

Eliminate Friction

What is it: From the start, Jesse strived to eliminate the macro friction of “baseball is boring.”  Fans are entertained from the second penguins guide them to park in the parking lot, through the player pre-game parade, promotions every half inning and a dance party with the players when they leave.  On a micro level, the Bananas attack the little things – ticket fees, convenience fees, shipping fees, buying concessions, standing in line.  Even the necessary pains, like paying invoices, they make it fun.  

How to approach it: Start with the things that drive you crazy as a fan – parking prices? Ticket fees? Concessions prices?  Make a list and just start tackling it one-by-one.

Entertain Always

What is it: In sports, we talk about the “driveway to driveway” experience, but the Savannah Bananas look at the 7 stages.  The first stage is the first impression fans have – navigating your website, what’s on your social media, the messaging in your confirmation emails.  The team sends videos to celebrate ticket sales and sends you a driving playlist to psyche you up for the game.  The last stage is the last impression – which is not pulling out of the parking lot.  It’s how you communicate with them after the game. Hint: It’s not an email with a postgame survey.  

How to approach it: Think about the different stages of your fan experience.  Take it one stage at a time.  Start with one item that you could “plus up” that will have an impact on the fan experience.  

Experiment Constantly

What is it: The Savannah Bananas are not afraid to try anything. They put their rivals’ logos on toilet paper in their restrooms.  They sell Dolce & Banana underwear.  Every game has 5 – 10 experiments.  With every experiment, they measure how the fans are responding to it, what are they doing, what’s working, what’s not and they learn faster.  What’s critical is how they learn.  They don’t learn by surveys, they learn by observation.  2 years ago, they took a picture of the grandstand every 30 minutes to track fans’ behavior, which led to the 2-hour Banana Ball game.  Every single night, a Savannah Bananas staff member goes undercover.  They park with the fans, walk in with them, eat with them, stand in line with them and report on their experience that night.

How to approach it: What’s the worst parking location, the worst seat, the worst food section in your venues? Go experience that for yourself. Become an undercover fan and figure out the friction points, the frustration points and the Fans First moments. Tackle the friction points one-by-one. Fix one concessions stand at a time, improve one gate flow at a time.  Take it step-by-step.

Engage Deeply

What is it: With such an emphasis on personalized experiences, it’s easy to become overwhelmed or stuck on how to deliver a unique, heartfelt experience for everyone.  Start by doing the unscalable – call a fan and thank them for a purchase, send a fan who is battling an illness a motivational video. From there, try and find ways to make it scalable.  One of Jesse’s other favorite references is from Darren Ross who runs the Magic Castle Hotel – “Listen carefully, respond creatively.”

How to approach it: The Bananas believe in the mindset of Andy Stanley, “Do for one, what you wish you could do for many.” Make one phone call / email / text to a fan per day to thank them for a purchase.  If fans comment on social media that they are coming to the game for a special occasion – first visit, birthday, anniversary – find a way to make that memorable for them. 

Empower Action

What is it: The Savannah Bananas staff are all empowered to create Fans First moments.  If you follow Jesse on LinkedIn, he continuously shares these stories, from his nightly walks on plussing the experience with his Director of Entertainment to one of his ticket staff noticing drain covers could use a Bananas face lift. If you are clear with the vision, then trust your staff to execute it.  If they go overboard with it, that’s great. It’s better to push them and rein it back from there.

How to approach it: We emphasize this all the time, lead with purpose over task.  Define your vision and how your staff can contribute to the execution of it.  Allow them to create experiences for your fans that align with your vision.  

Jesse often cites one of Walt Disney’s quotes, “Money doesn’t excite me. Ideas excite me.”  

For even more ideas than we could possibly share in one email, check out the full conversation and purchase Fans First for your summer beach read, book club or team idea generation session.

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Flip the Switch

115: How the Savannah Bananas Create the ‘Greatest Show Possible’ w/ Jesse Cole

Our only three-peat on the show, we welcome back Jesse Cole, owner of the Savannah Bananas.  In previous episodes, David and Jesse have jammed and brainstormed, but in this show, we unpack the Bananas’ 5-E-Framework that has propelled their Fans First model into a global phenomenon.  What the Bananas lack in detailed processes and metrics, they make up for in intentionality, in-depth knowledge of their product and fans and the impression they leave through every step of the in-person and virtual experience.  


Show Notes

4:04    Fans First: The Savannah Bananas Story

5:08    Capturing the World’s Attention

10:47  Balancing Attention and Intention

12:49  The 5 E Framework 

13:16  Eliminate Friction – What Hurts the Most

20:01  Make the Small Bets

21:52  Entertain Always – How You View Things is How You Do Things

23:43  The Last Impression

29:34  Experiment Constantly

33:11  Collecting Data and Feedback

35:48  Undercover Fans

38:11  Engage Deeply

45:19  Empowering Action

49:23  “The First Fan is Yourself”


Want more from Jesse Cole and the Savannah Bananas?

Fans First: Change The Game, Break the Rules & Create an Unforgettable Experience
Find Your Yellow Tux: How to Be Successful By Standing Out

Connect with Jesse: Twitter | LinkedIn |  Business Done Differently Podcast

Follow the Savannah Bananas: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | TikTok | YouTube

Check out Jesse’s other appearances on Flip the Switch:

Episode 14: Fans First

Episode 44: A Culture of Experimentation and Innovation

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Lessons from Leaders – Jamie Pollard

Are you considering fan desires before updating your game day experience? 

2019 NACDA Athletics Director of the Year Jamie Pollard joined the latest Flip the Switch episode and discussed Iowa State’s momentum, culminating in record season ticket sales this year. A significant contributor? Understanding Cyclone fans and tailoring experiences to key customer personas. Here are three key takeaways from the conversation with the NACDA President:

Speak to fans’ love language  

Early into his tenure, Jamie and team recognized the Cyclones’ passionate fan base loved tailgating but weren’t necessarily buying tickets. So the department began investing heavily in the overall Jack Trice Stadium experience. For example, their End Zone Fan Club targets middle-aged, high-earners with early Saturday commitments who want to arrive and immediately step into a tailgating environment. The result of all these improvements? Iowa State has seen a steady increase in season ticket sales over the past decade that started well before the program reached national prominence under Matt Campbell. 

To lead like an entrepreneur, challenge your staff

As a leader, your job must include asking the tough questions before implementing a new strategy. Earlier this year, Iowa State adopted digital parking passes over the standard hang tags for football. Before carrying the same plan over to basketball season, Jamie challenged his team to ask more probing questions: What happens when all cars show up at the same time? Will the scanners work when it’s pitch black and 10 degrees out? Will fans be fumbling for their phones in their winter coats? His team also had to be willing to execute the plan themselves before implementing. The department reconsidered, sticking with hang tags for basketball.  

Hold people accountable. And not just about job performance 

Jamie learned from legendary AD Debbie Yow the importance of holding people accountable. At the end of the day, a ‘job has to get done.’ However, that doesn’t mean an employee should skip important family responsibilities. Jamie prides himself on the “Family First” culture at Iowa State and mentioned calling out an employee who missed his son’s first little league game to complete a work task. At a time when employee burnout is widespread across the U.S., have you evaluated what values your culture truly prioritizes?

Jamie also discussed:

  • How the recent Big 12 additions and evolving media landscape substantially bolster the conference
  • Learning from past failures 
  • Empowering your staff so that you are only a tie-breaker
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Flip the Switch

College Leaders | Speaking The Fans’ Love Language w/ Jamie Pollard

This week we’re joined by Jamie Pollard, Director of Athletics at Iowa State University.  Since his arrival in 2005, he has re-imagined almost every facet of the department, leading the Cyclones to records in attendance and ticket sales and academic scores and some of their highest finishes in the Learfield Directors’ Cup.  His leadership extends throughout the industry as he was recently named NACDA President of the Year for 2021-22.  In this episode, Jamie and David break down how Iowa State approaches its fan experience by “speaking the fans’ love language” and leading like an entrepreneur.

Show Notes

2:31   Breaking the Football Season Ticket Record

3:53   Building a “Fans First” Experience at Jack Trice Stadium

7:13    Identifying What Fits Your Fan Base

15:53    The Role of NACDA and NACDA President

24:20   Opportunities for the new Big 12

28:50    Leaders Who’ve Impacted Jamie

32:03    Managing Work / Life Priorities

36:17    High Points and Low Points as a Leader

39:03    Learning from an Apparent Failure

42:18    Thinking Like an Entrepreneur

45:42    Creating Impactful Meetings

47:56    Empowering Your Staff – 50/50 Decision Making


Connect with Jamie via email or follow him on Twitter

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