No more signs on the outfield wall, a sometimes unsightly staple of minor league and summer league baseball. No more sponsorships in game programs. No more announcements hawking products each half inning.
“People don’t come to a ballpark to get advertised to,” Marie Gentry, the team’s “fans first director,” said in a phone interview. “They don’t wake up and say, ‘I can’t wait to get marketed to.’ You see it with Netflix and other services: People are paying to not get advertised to. We see ourselves doing the same thing.
“The current model [in minor league baseball] is put ads everywhere. Ballparks have turned into the Yellow Pages. What we’ve seen is that’s outdated. People aren’t choosing to do business with people just because of the relationship they have with their favorite sports team. They choose to do business with people based on who offers the best experiences, and that’s what we want to go all in on.”
Minor league and summer league teams can rarely market individual players to fans, and it isn’t easy to convince many of those fans to hold a rooting interest in the local team. The players move on to other clubs too quickly to gain name recognition, and fans already follow major league clubs, making it hard to get them hooked on lower tiers of the game. So to fill the stands, minor league and summer league franchises turn to promotions, fun merchandise, eclectic concessions and other chicanery.
The Bananas, who play in the Coastal Plain League, call that method of marketing, “fans first.” They’re so invested in the approach that the team offers workshops to business leaders under the banner “Fans First University.” The front office pays less attention to winning games and more attention to making sure spectators have a good time.
And it’s working, according to the team. The Bananas have sold out every home game since 2017, Gentry said. Grayson Stadium seats about 4,000 fans, and the team plays about 26 home games a season.
“Compared to most minor league teams, we’re able to focus on entertainment,” she said. “We don’t have to focus as much as player development. Where most minor league teams get it wrong is that they’re not focusing on the fans.”
When the Bananas open the season May 28 against the Macon Bacon (yes, there is another food-themed team in the league), the left field wall at Grayson Stadium will feature a display paying homage to the history of the facility, where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Hank Aaron all played and where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke in 1933. The center field wall will be a traditional dark green. Fans will be able to sign their names on the right field wall, which includes a large “Go Bananas!” banner.
Gentry said the team doesn’t expect to reevaluate its anti-ad stance for at least the next several seasons. The move will cost the franchise a bit more than 10 percent of its revenue. The Bananas plan to swallow that cost.
“We wouldn’t buy a billboard. That doesn’t make sense for our brand,” Gentry said. “And we didn’t envision in the next five years that wasn’t going to be the right move for our stadium. We wouldn’t buy an ad, so we wouldn’t sell an ad. That’s where we’re at.”