In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Jesse Cole, Owner of the Savannah Bananas and author of Find Your Yellow Tux, joins Rob Cressy to talk about fan engagement, game day operations, and how he keeps fans coming back. How do Jesse and his team turn boring into fun? How can you run game day more efficiently by learning from your failures? Why is it important to share stories that show your core values? Why is investing in the brand crucial?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04) Welcome to the Gameday Playbook presented by FanFood, a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I'm your host Rob Cressy and joining me today is Jesse Cole, owner of the Savannah Bananas and author of the book Find Your Yellow Tux. Jesse, super excited to have you on the show.
Jesse Cole: (00:34) Dude, I'm pumped up to be with the legend himself. Rob Cressy right now. This is huge for me.
Rob Cressy: (00:38) And Jesse, this is probably, I believe our third podcast episode we've done together, but first one for the FanFood audience and I am so incredibly excited because you inspire me. We've built a relationship. You're someone that is a great example for others in so many different areas. Living in action, creativity, marketing, passion, fan engagement, providing value. And I'm so excited to, because I know for other people they're going to get so much out of this and I do want to make sure that people check out your book because no joke, I believe it was last year that it came out, correct me if I'm wrong, but when it came out, I read it immediately. My year was set because I just loved the mindset about it. So thank you Jesse.
Jesse Cole: (01:28) This is the best intro ever. I'm feeling great right now. Rob. Thank you for this. Let's have some fun, man.
Rob Cressy: (01:33) Yeah, I mean it comes from a yes philosophy. You always build up others, right?
Jesse Cole: (01:37) You're doing a great job. It's how do you make people feel and when you actually create a business model in sports or whatever you buy, how do you make people feel? It's amazing that the results and success that come from it. So you did a great job right there. And those are the things we try to actually teach our team. And so thank you for that.
Rob Cressy: (01:53) You're welcome. So let's actually stay on that right there. How do you make people feel? And when I think about fan engagement, it's something that has to be very intentional that so often when you look at professional sports or sports in general, you've got a product on the field and some brands do good, some don't. But the ones who do a little bit extra, they're the ones that make you feel some sort of way. And there's that quote now that I'm going to get this a hundred percent correct, but people will never forget the way that you make them feel. And if you can go above and beyond. So give us a little taste of your fan engagement mindset regarding how you make people feel.
Jesse Cole: (02:31) Well, we are a small little team here in Savannah, Georgia, the Bananas. And we were very clear from the beginning that we weren't going to be like the normal baseball team. It was going to be all about entertainment on the surface and everything was to make people feel entertained, make them laugh and bring fun. And so for us, we focus on what we can control. And most sports teams, they focus so much on the team, the players, how they do on the field. We realized we couldn't control that. So let's focus on the entertainment. So for us, we want people to feel a sense of unbelievable fun and excitement every step of the way. So for instance, when someone buys a ticket from us, they get an email and it's a video of our team. It says "Congrats! You just made the best decision of your day right now." Once your ticket order came in, a banana siren went off around the whole stadium. We had a banana slowly walk in and grab your tickets and handpick them and put them on a silk pillow. We raise the silk pillow, and we sang circle of life around the pillow. And then we brought your tickets into our bowl so you can be ready to go bananas. It's just as a sense of variation of that. We want to hit them with that fun. And that's everything we do and that's why we have a band and a break dancing first base coach, and DJ peels on wheels and Rob this year we even hired a six-year-old to be our official high fiver for the team.
Rob Cressy: (03:51) I love it because what you guys do is you're surprising and delighting. It's something that is a lost art because so many brands don't do it. So the ones that do it, it's an opportunity for you to create a positive brain interaction. And one thing that's been a hallmark of the way that I've built my own brand is everything you do is an opportunity to create a positive brand interaction. And certainly you know that, but all the way down to the confirmation ticketing email, it speaks to having the attention to detail. But also you'd like to put yourself in the shoes of the end consumer. What would you want a brand to do in your ticket email? Because the majority of emails that we all receive are very bland and not value-driven.
Jesse Cole: (04:36) Well, I think at any sporting event or any team, turn the boring into fun. So you think about all the things that happened that are boring. How can you make the fun? Even here in our office, our hold music is ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, ring, banana phone. And we actually have a voicemail that a woman sings: "You've reached this Savannah, nanana, you've reached that stuff in a bananas nanana. Not on every single thing. We look at those boring touch points. So to give you another example, during the pregame announcements, you've been to every sporting event, Rob, you know it's like, all right, please watch for throne and batted balls. We have concessions here etc. We have our interns sing the pregame announcements. So she goes like, "Smoking is prohibited inside Grayson stadium. So take it out back." There was a place of smoke in the front and you're like, she gives this whole song that goes to that theme. And so that's a boring moment. Make it fun.
(05:30) And so I think so many teams can look at that. When you're doing visiting lines, do you do it like everyone else? We play the undertaker theme song when the visiting team's going on. You think of those moments and I think there's so many opportunities if you're clear on who you are. And I think so many companies aren't clear. We're a baseball team, we're a football team. But what business are you really in? And for us, we're in the entertainment business and it's very clear we make baseball fun. So let's make every boring moment into a fun moment.
Rob Cressy: (05:58) Absolutely love that mindset. So now let's get to the tactical and the action-oriented side of things and executing these things with so many things going from running a stadium to the team, all the way down to the hold music that takes people in process. So can you take us into your mindset into how to run gameday operations efficiently? Cause you've got a lot going on.
Jesse Cole: (06:23) Yeah, well we fail miserably in gameday operations. I mean we became the only team in 2016 to do every single ticket an all-you-can-eat. So we said, Hey, what's the worst possible experience when you go to a sporting event? Alright, you get nickel and dime. It's eight bucks for this. You stand in line. That's terrible. So what's the exact opposite? So we said, let's make every ticket all inclusive. But Rob, we have no idea how to do it. We just knew it'd be a great ticket option. All your burgers or hot dogs or chicken sandwiches, your soda, your water, your dessert, all for $15, including the ticket. The first night, the lines were about three hours long. Someone would get in line before the game started and then get a burger until the 8th inning. I mean, it was that bad.
Jesse Cole: (07:05) And so we failed miserably. But then I think the big thing is most teams would quit there. We said, all right, let's get a little better next game. Let's get a little bit the next game. We started just keep making changes. We knew it was the answer, but we just didn't know how to get there. So we're realistic in the sense that we know our operations aren't the thing that we do best. People don't come to our games for our burgers, they come to our games for the show. And I think people need to understand what is that one thing they want to be the best at. It's not our food, it's not necessarily our operation efficiency, but it's the show, it's the entertainment. So we focused on that.
Rob Cressy: (07:40) How did you handle the communication for the people on that very first day of three hours? Cause certainly you've built a brand of fun and engagement in this atmosphere where the being at the stadium is part of the experience. And oh by the way, there's also a game going on so you can get someone, you've got a lot of loyalty, but you've probably got a lot of people trying for the first time. Certainly in an all-you-can-eat type of opportunity. So how do you address a "Sorry you've waited in line for three hours" and the experience or lack there of that, that may have given someone that.
Jesse Cole: (08:17) So we were fortunate that a lot of people gave us the benefit of the doubt because they knew it was our first time ever in this old 1926 ballpark trying something new and some people didn't. But I think what we did was like, what can you do to make them feel cared for? I'm sure we gave away more free food, more freebies that night than we ever had. We'll go around and do samples. We'll go around doing things in line to try to take care of people. But you know, it's not something you can teach. It's just something that we hate. Again, put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel and what, and one thing people don't ever want to feel or want to hear is excuses. If you're ever standing in line and something goes wrong, you don't hear, Oh, people didn't show up to work today.
Jesse Cole: (08:55) It's really bad. No one wants to hear that. So we got to remember not to give excuses, just put yourself in their shoes. And one thing that we do, Rob, is we do undercover fan every single night. We have someone on our staff actually go undercover and experience a game as a fan. They park with the fans, they walk in with the fans, they sit with the fans even. I've done it and taken off the yellow tuxedo and I think that gives a great feeling of empathy to understand what it's like to actually go through the entire process and through that we get better every single day and I think we've learned to compete with ourselves and that first night where it was really bad, the communication, the food. So we told ourselves we need to get a little better next game, a little bit better next game, and now it's less than five minutes.
Jesse Cole: (09:34) If you want to get food at any point in a stadium for 4,000 people and it's taken four years to get there, I think fans now appreciate that we put the time and effort to get there and didn't just quit and give up. Man, empathy is such a strong and powerful word when talking about everything that we are right now. Because when you can put yourself in the shoes of someone else and think about this for any business, I don't care what it is, but when you can empathize with someone and be like, man, I feel their feeling, you can now understand the solutions of what you can do to help drive the value for them. And you know, it's crazy. Our fans will throw suggestions to us because our whole company is named Fans First Entertainment. Our fans will say, Hey, you could try this, you could try this.
Jesse Cole: (10:14) Our fans design our T shirts. They helped design our jerseys. They named the team, they named our mascot. They're now a part of our male cheerleading team. It is a fan based team. And I think that's really cool that everyone wants to feel like they're a part of something. And when you actually allow them to be a part of something and you listen to them, it's amazing what happens. And I feel we've built a great community. I mean we're so fortunate what's happened is because of that and if you actually want to check out a good book about not accepting excuses, check out Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink. It is been something that has been foundational to my mindset as a leader to essentially take everything on yourself and there's no such thing as excuses. Cause you're right, the number of times that we've spent money or had experiences where all of a sudden excuses are thrown out. And it's certainly in professional sports, the best of the best. They do not accept excuses from their athletes. So why would we as consumers accept excuses from the brands that we interact with?
Jesse Cole: (11:16) And the reality is rough. It's on the owner. You know, if something goes wrong with a game day staff member or an intern or something at the ballpark — it's the owner's responsibility, it's their fault. And I tried to say, you know what? It's my fault. I made a bad decision here. I made a bad decision even if it wasn't directly my fault. And I think we need to really get into a culture of no more excuses and taking more accountability and ownership. And when we do that, you know, it's amazing what happens because the rest of the staff starts doing the same thing. No, you know what? It was my fault. I should be better. And they start calling out as well.
Rob Cressy: (11:43) Well, yeah. And that's about culture and core values that you have. As you said, you've got to set that at the top and it trickles down. And it's no wonder why the brands who are best at it, like you guys, like Southwest, the ones that surprise and delight, boom, it starts with the core values and they make that known.
Jesse Cole: (12:01) Yeah. And then they have stories that back up those core values. Every so many companies have their core values and integrity, honesty, all this. Give me stories that show your people, you know, following after that core value. That's when it's a game changer. We're very clear. Our core values always be caring, different, enthusiastic, fun, growing, and hungry. And we have stories that back that up. We also have our fans give us testimonials that back those up. So we're really embodying it in a brand. And this has taken a lot of failures, a lot of struggles. I know he said like, we figured it out, believe me, we failed so much on the way there. But now we're just so clear on where we're going and what we're doing.
Rob Cressy: (12:34) All right, so let's go with where you're going and let's look forward. What opportunities do you see right now in the sports industry?
Jesse Cole: (12:44) I think it all comes down to the questions that you're asking. And what keeps me up at night is how do we stay relevant? If you look at every single sports team, they have ebbs and flows. You know, they have a sellout streak for 400 games, then they lose it. And so what I'm thinking is how do you stay relevant? And I think for sports teams, they're going to have to own more entities. And what I mean by that is, they may have LeBron James for two years and then they lose LeBron James. Now, athletes move every couple of years more than they ever did before. So what can you own that's not necessarily a player? And the things that we think about is our characters, whether it's our break dancing first base coach, whether it's our male cheerleading team, whether it's our "banana nanana", we think of these entities, what can you own? That's part of the brand that people will come to your arena, your ballpark, no matter what players you have on the courtroom in the field. And so I'm trying to build this, almost thinking of it as WWE. You have all of these different brands underneath one single brand and I think that is going to be the key for sports teams. So they don't just rely on bringing in the biggest superstar, they rely on creating an entertainment experience that succeeds no matter who they have on the court.
Rob Cressy: (13:57) Well, you're speaking to somebody who loves all things brand-building. So sign me up for that because it makes complete sense. And if you think about how fickle everyone's attention is right now, it is the brands that are gonna go into invest in the relationships that will be there to stay because our relationship lasts so much longer than, like you said, a transaction between teams and players. Because me being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, one year ago we had Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown. Guess what, zero of them played for the Steelers last week.
Jesse Cole: (14:34) Yeah, a hundred percent, a hundred percent. And so that's where you have to build a brand that isn't dependent on the players. And then I think also Rob is every team should not just have a marketing plan. They should have a retention plan. What are you doing to create attention? So many brands are like, Oh, we're going to market this, we're going to sell this, we're going to sell this. But you gotta have things. What are your merchandise? What about TV shows? What about food items that are unique? You've got to create that so that people know: I don't know what to expect this year. Bill Veeck said it best and he's obviously one of my biggest mentors, he said: I used to never even announce. It's whenever we're doing fireworks, I want people to come to the stadium saying, I don't know what's going to happen next. And when you create that, and you may miss something, that's when you'll have fans that like, I've gotta be at the ballpark, I've gotta be at the arena.
Jesse Cole: (15:16) Now fans kind of have an idea of what to expect. You need to create something that they feel like they may miss something. And that's why we're having so many surprises every year. I do paloozas with our staff and we come up with these things that's like, alright, let's keep that a secret until we release it. We didn't tell anybody about the kilts until we played in it. I mean we played a whole game in kilts and we didn't tell even the media until the game happened. You think about those things like are they really going to do this? And I feel like teams need to hold some of those secrets behind and let them happen so fans can say this is going to be special. And I show up and I don't know what's going to happen.
Rob Cressy: (15:46) What about on the technology side of things? What's on your mind for technology?
Jesse Cole: (15:53) The technology makes me laugh, Rob. Everyone's talking about technology and you know, my mindset, whatever's normal, do the exact opposite. So if everyone's going in one direction, where am I going? The exact opposite. So at our stadium we have an old school manual scoreboard similar to Fenway park. We had a digital scoreboard that was up here before we arrived, but we never turned it on. We never operated. We had zero technology at our ballpark. And I understand the value of technology. I understand the fact that our brand spreads because of all the music videos and all the videos that go out. Well, when people come to the ballpark, I want them to escape. I want them to be able to come out there and just be like a kid again. And that's why we have 4,000 people dancing, 4,000 people singing.
Jesse Cole: (16:36) And so I don't know what's going to happen with technology. I know that virtual reality is going to take off. I know people are gonna be able to experience games like they've never had before, but I still want that father and son to be able to sit together, enjoy a hotdog and talk and point out things that are happening at the ballpark. I want that to happen every single night. And I think that's so important to me now that I have a son and we played catch for the first time on our field in front of 4,000 fans. I think about that. So I'm not jumping to digital, I'm not jumping to electronic, I'm not thinking about all that. I'm thinking how do we make the experience so fun that people won't even think about having technology?
Rob Cressy: (17:11) I love that. So playing devil's advocate here are, is there a part of you that says with all of this, we understand we might not be straight turbo when it comes to technology, but can you be conscious about maybe we do one thing to help add technology to increase fan experience, knowing that at the end of the day that I completely agree with you on escaping and the reason for the lack of technology, but what about the opportunities to use technology maybe in more unique ways that others aren't thinking about?
Jesse Cole: (17:45) So I understand that and obviously being on this show, I understand the value of technology and I think every company should always ask, what are you doing to make it easier for your customers? That's why Amazon is winning. They're making it easier every single day. So I think you need to ask that question. If there is technology that can make it easier without having people have to be so focused on it for the entire game, that could be an answer. But for me, I'm still so focused on the show and the entertainment and the one-on-one personal connections that technology would have to be a no-brainer for us to go to make the experience better, faster, easier that we jumped into that. So, uh, I can't say never, but I will say what right now our focus is pretty single.
Rob Cressy: (18:27) Jesse, as we wrap this up, is there anything that I didn't ask you that you think would benefit the audience?
Jesse Cole: (18:35) Yeah, that's a great question. I think anybody in the sports world, I think, uh, just continue to think about everything is about your fans. Love your fans more than you love your product and think about every single touch point. How do you make it an exciting, fun experience? And if you focus on that, you will always be competing against yourself and you will always win the game because you been focus on what matters most.
Rob Cressy: (18:59) Jesse, I have so much fun talking to you because it's so refreshing. Fundamentally, we think the same way. I love the fan-first mindset. Obviously anybody who's made it this far and listen to this probably loves your brand and your philosophy. Where can everybody connect with you?
Jesse Cole: (19:18) I was told the other day, if you just searched yellow tux on Google, you'll find me all over the place. So you search yellow tux you will find me. I post every day on LinkedIn and I just share the journey and I think that's what I respect you so much is constantly sharing what you're learning with people and not asking for anything in return. When you give, give, give, everything else comes back. And I think you do a great job of that and I tried to do that every day as well.
Rob Cressy: (19:39) Well thank you very much Jesse. And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. I'm curious to hear what brands make you feel some sort of way. Is there a brand that is fun or makes you feel excited? I would love to hear about your favorite brands. You can hit up FanFood on Twitter @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram, @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on all social media platforms at Rob Cressy.