The Savannah Bananas show us that sport’s future may not look like sport | Baseball

The pitcher walks back to the mound, ball sheathed in his right hand, quietly contemplating his next move. Sixty feet away, the batter raises and cocks his bat in anticipation. Then the pitcher slowly removes his shirt, flings his glove and cap to one side and launches into a sexy rendition of a Celine Dion song, while his teammates gather in formation around him and wave flares. Behind home plate, the umpire is enthusiastically twerking.

The Savannah Bananas were born a decade ago, when a former pitcher called Jesse Cole was coaching a team in the Cape Cod league for the summer and realised that the game he was watching was boring him to tears. So he bought a small team in Savannah, renamed it the Bananas, put on a yellow tuxedo, hired a group of elderly cheerleaders named the Banana Nanas, and thus was built a sensation that in a few short years has begun to change the way people think about sport.

The mantra of the Bananas is, in the words of Cole, to “make baseball fun”. There are dance routines, batters on stilts, somersaulting fielders, trick plays galore. Pitchers will frequently throw the ball from a trampoline. Bats will occasionally be on fire. Paddling pools on the field and barbecues in the dugout are a common sight. There are different rules to regular baseball, too: a strict two-hour time limit, no walks, no bunts, and if a fan in the crowd catches a foul ball, it counts as an out.

Whether any of this actually strikes you as fun depends whether or not you sit in the intended target market. And, on the surface, it is easy enough to dismiss the Bananas as an irreverent sideshow, a novelty circus act, albeit a wildly successful one. The waiting list for tickets at Grayson Stadium is around 550,000, and growing by thousands every day. Nationwide exhibition tours have sold out within hours. Spread first by word of mouth, and then by social media, the Bananas now have a TikTok following outstripping any other professional baseball team in America. Executives and sporting promoters from around the world are flocking to Georgia in an attempt to try to decrypt and facsimile the Bananas formula. In short, the Bananas model has real-world implications: a vision of sport that – for better or worse – may well be coming to an arena near you soon.

The Bananas do not play in any kind of organised league. Last year they withdrew from the Coastal Plain League, and now operate as a kind of full-time touring act, taking on local invitational sides as well as a hired pantomime nemesis called the Party Animals. Breaking out of the structures of organised baseball and leaning into the world of stunts and scripted entertainment has allowed them to unlock revenue streams unimaginable to most local sporting teams: an ESPN documentary, a global merchandising business, commercial and brand partnerships.

And while the Bananas themselves may be a madcap outlier, with their on-field paddling pools and dancing umpires, many of their tactics are merely an absurdist extension of trends that have been evident in professional sport for a while, many borrowed from the more curated worlds of reality television, social media influencers and big-time wrestling.

What is the Hundred, for example, if not an attempt to create a new entertainment-themed product almost entirely divorced from the existing traditions and structures of English cricket? Is it really such a big leap from the choreographed fan dance to the choreographed player dance? How long before someone at World Snooker decides that what the kids really want to see is Mark Selby and Shaun Murphy riding their cues like a lap-dance pole before a World Grand Prix quarter-final? If you are a sport struggling for eyeballs and audience demographic, then ultimately the only legitimate arbiter of taste here is the market.

Perhaps the closest parallel to the Bananas in the UK is Wrexham, whose evolution from backwater community football club to global entertainment brand is well under way. Over the summer, powered by their Hollywood stardust and Disney+ documentary, Wrexham have signed a clutch of lucrative commercial deals with the likes of United Airlines, Danone and HP (the electronics conglomerate, not the sauce). Exhibition games in North Carolina, California and Pennsylvania were packed out, with tickets going for up to £400. They are predicted to turn over around £20m this season, which would put them ahead of many Championship clubs.

Aaron Hayden celebrates after scoring against Manchester United on Wrexham’s US tour
Aaron Hayden celebrates after scoring against Manchester United on Wrexham’s US tour. Photograph: Allison Dinner/EPA

If you think about it, does any of this income really rely on Wrexham playing League Two games at Barrow and Sutton? Perhaps the long-term goal is to work their way up the divisions and haul themselves into the Premier League, a fraught and fragile objective that could be derailed by any of a thousand external factors. But surely the more innovative play here is to reinvent themselves entirely as an A-list touring commodity, establish a standalone brand with a string of hand-picked opponents and eye-catching celebrity cameos, and teach Paul Mullin to dance. If you’re a prospective investor, which model of success makes more sense to you?

Because for all the emphasis on inclusiveness, entertainment and fun, there is also a kind of intentional disruption here. By circulating the idea that baseball needs to be “made fun” again the Bananas are not just defining themselves against something that already exists, but aggressively targeting its market. Their success should serve as an early portent that the future of sport may not look very much like sport at all.