Savannah Bananas Eschew In-Ballpark Advertising as Part of Larger Fan-Focused Strategy

Sports organizations strive to strike the balance between maximizing revenue and enhancing fan experience. For many, this seems to be a zero-sum game. In order to increase revenue, the natural course of action is to heighten ticket, merchandise, and/or concession prices while simultaneously exploring the strategy of enlarging the portfolio of corporate sponsors the team is partnering with. Yet if you want to boost fan experience, typically the opposite has to happen: teams will be faced with the burden of slashing prices while limiting the ad-heavy presence of corporate sponsorship.

It seems like there is no winner here. Well, what if you could have the best of both worlds?

That is what the Savannah Bananas determined to figure out. A member of the Coastal Plain League since 2016, the Bananas made the announcement to go complete ad-free in February of this year, thus becoming the first ballpark to do so. While it was a momentous decision, it did not occur overnight. Bananas’ president Jared Orton explained that this strategy had been well in the making, culminating in the last year after analyzing reoccurring fan trends.

“About a year ago, we noticed that the “pain point” that baseball fans and their consumer behavior told us was that the game was getting a bit longer and monotonous in a sense,” said Orton. “We were forced to ask ourselves how would we be able to make the game more exciting while avoiding nickel and diming people?”

In order to obtain the middle ground, Orton knew the source of revenue stream had to be refocused. Even more importantly, the organization had to tap into what made the baseball games worthwhile in the first place: the fans. He had asked himself, “do our fans come to our games and get enjoyment from having ads plastered in-stadium?”

With this focus on the forefront, the leadership team concluded that removing advertising would help improve fan experience by shifting their sponsorship focus away from salesy-pitches and more towards a cohesive partnership that benefits the partner, Bananas, and fans alike. With roughly 30-35 partners since the teams inception, which was already a shift in thinking from the norm in Savannah, the Bananas had always focused on limiting signs in general. The team prides itself on being proud community partners in the present. After this decision, they feel even more set up to also provide value in the future.

“Much of my inspiration came from a classic Steve Jobs story,” said Orton. “One day, Jobs took the Apple team on a tour of Xerox. They noticed they had an operating system where you can use a mouse to click on icons. Seeing this, Jobs wanted to integrate this into the MacIntosh computer that was being built. Knowing production was almost complete, Jobs remarked “It is better for us to blow it up now than for the marketplace to do so in 5 years.””

Orton admits it was a bit awkward at first. Going to partners who had been with the team since the beginning was no casual conversation. Yet, all of the talks came back to having an honest discussion of the best way the team can provide value. The Bananas believe the future of marketing is increasingly fan-centric. While they have no doubt advertising works, they see it as an expensive, more intrusive way to acquire customers.

Instead, the organization pushes to have that “missing revenue” poured back into the customers, having those customers become fans, and seeing those fans evolve into the team’s most vocal marketers. Partners should take that advertising money from their previous in-stadium signs and invest in the team in order to provide amazing experience for the fans as well as for the partners themselves.

“We have to ask ourselves, “what would look like if every single game, every singe fan stayed towards the end?” pondered Orton. “If we eliminate advertising, fans will invest more of their attention and energy on the game and the in-between inning fun. If people stay longer, they will naturally end up buying more drinks, more food, and more merchandise. Thus, we are able to keep fans at the forefront while not raising prices and not straying away from providing an experience that feels natural, authentic, and genuine to them.”

An example of this vision showcases using existing partners to provide immersive experiences for fans within the ballpark. Take Budweiser and a few of the team’s liquor distributors. The guiding question asked to them was “how can we use your product to create a better experience for our fans?” The Bananas’ staff noted their stadium club which was a bit dilapidated and in need of a sprucing up. Turning to these beer and spirits partners, plans are being made to have the organizations work in-tandem to provide specialty beer, wine, and bourbon tastings in the stadium club to fans during upcoming Bananas’ games. It is a win-win-win for all as the partners are able to showcase their products and bring new attention to themselves, the fans are provided a new experience, new products, and an enhanced exciting atmosphere, and the Bananas’ seize the ability to continually reinvigorate the ballpark with fresh ideas for partnerships.

So how has this strategy been received thus far? Out of the 30-35 partners, only a handful didn’t see eye to eye with it at first. Most thought it was different, it was bold. They respected the strategy because it truly embraced what fans want.

“We are not just out here for clicks or to be trendy,” said Orton. “We really have intentionality behind this. This is a discussion that all businesses need to have. Businesses, ask yourself, “is traditional advertising working? Or should we be pouring that money directly into our consumers?”

In fact, this is a discussion that the Bananas are having directly with other organizations, including many of their own partners. In the Bananas to Business workshops, Orton and members of the Bananas’ leadership team share their fan-centric approach with everyone from banks, auto dealerships, real estate agents, anyone who wants to genuinely help others have a better experience throughout the customer journey.

“We are proud of the work we do to help others in our community,” said Orton. “All of this works for us because we have built our whole business to succeed on ticket sales and merchandise. We can succeed without sponsorship. We want and need to be successful because of our fans. That’s why we put them front and center of everything we do.”