How to Make a Fan: From F1 to Banana Ball
March 8, 2023
[00:00:00] Jess Smetana:
I'm still surprised with myself how much I've gotten into Formula 1.
[00:00:06] Jody Avirgan:
Up until a couple years ago, Jessica Smetana didn't know anything about Formula 1.
[00:00:14] Jess Smetana:
I've never been a fan of NASCAR, IndyCar, any other sort of motorsport. I didn't even know what a tire rotation was until three years ago. I thought that just meant they, like, put your car up on a spike and spin the wheels around for 10 minutes and then put it back down and you drive away.
[00:00:29] Jody Avirgan:
Jessica is a sports journalist and a podcaster, and no one is more surprised than her that one of the shows she now hosts is a Formula 1 podcast. It's called DNF, short for Did Not Finish.
[00:00:43] Jess Smetana:
It’s still a little surreal because I've always liked the same sports since I was five years old. You know, football, basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, tennis. That's pretty much it.
[00:00:57] Jody Avirgan:
This picture that Jess is painting, it's pretty familiar, right? The sports we watch, they're often the sports that are with us as kids. We played basketball growing up or we went to a game with a parent and then boom, we are adults and we are diehard NBA fans, and those sports that Jessica rattled off—football, basketball, baseball, et cetera—that’s kind of the list.
That's who's sitting at the table. So how does a racecar driver with great hair and a hard-to-place European accent find a seat at Jessica's table? How does a sports fan suddenly find an entirely new passion in a sport she's never had any interest in? It's all thanks to a little series on Netflix called Formula 1: Drive To Survive.
Every season of the show covers a racing year of Formula 1, and the episodes are part recap, part explainer, part character drama. You get the full rundown of what Formula 1 is. It's a motorsport. The cars are carefully engineered for top speed. You meet the engineering teams; you meet the drivers.
You see them trying to execute crazy passes or, in the case of one driver, finding himself enveloped in flames after a crash. He survived, by the way. Don’t worry. Some of the racetracks are set up downtown in cities like Monaco and Baku twisting and turning between skyscrapers and seaside views.
"Formula 1: the TV series" captured Americans’ attention in a way that "Formula 1: the sport" had never managed. The sport has been popular for a long time in other parts of the world. Europe mostly, but not in the US until Drive to Survive got people hooked. The Netflix series was a hit. The 2022 racing season averaged 50% more viewers than the previous season, which was already the most-watched F1 season ever in the US.
And this is unusual because with TV programs and streaming platforms and apps and everything else competing for your attention, the media ecosystem is disintegrating, fracturing. Most places are worried about losing audience. Sports is often seen as immune to those pressures, but even in sports, just treading water, not losing audience, is seen as a win. So to really break through, that's tough.
[00:03:24] Jody Avirgan:
My name is Jody Avirgan, and this is Good Sport from the TED Audio Collective. On this episode, we're looking at two examples of sports that did the unthinkable. They broke through and captured the attention of a massive number of people, and maybe this marketing-first approach is changing the very nature of how we watch and play sports.
[00:04:03] Jody Avirgan:
Formula 1 has been around for more than 70 years, doing just fine, thank you, in the European market. But the idea for Drive to Survive came when an American media company bought the motorsport.
[00:04:15] Jess Smetana:
You have to give credit to Liberty Media, which bought Formula 1 in 2017 and made a decided push to market Formula 1 to the United States.
[00:04:24] Jody Avirgan:
Liberty Media is a giant media conglomerate. They own the Atlanta Braves, but mostly they own entertainment companies like SiriusXM and Live Nation. They once owned Starz. I think they once had a controlling stake in court TV and even the McNeil/Lehrer news hour. I don't know. I kind of got lost with all the mergers and spinoffs. The point is: they’re enormous and their main business seems to be eyeballs. Wherever they can find them.
[00:04:49] Spencer Hall:
They knew they were sitting on top of, uh, an unclaimed territory of followers, right? And potential new fans.
[00:04:56] Jody Avirgan:
Spencer Hall co-hosts DNF with Jessica Smetana, and he says that if F1's new ownership wanted to grow the sport, they needed to identify where they might find new fans who might watch Formula 1 if they just knew a little bit more about it.
[00:05:13] Spencer Hall:
Where’s F1 going to expand? Is F1 gonna find new viewers in England? Right? Are they going to, are they going to expand the Belgian market? No. They're pretty much, like, full up there. So even just getting a small toehold in America represents a tremendous gain for them.
[00:05:28] Jody Avirgan:
And for Liberty Media, F1’s new owners, why not try what they know? Make entertainment. So when someone suggests they follow a racing team, just film a bunch of behind-the-scenes content, it escalates. Liberty Media reaches out to a production company; they end up pitching a docu-series. One year later, they're filming the entire 2018 racing season for what would become the first season of Drive to Survive. The show went live on Netflix in March of 2019.
[00:05:56] Spencer Hall:
It did what I think every sort of great form of storytelling does, which is it focused on characters more so than the outcomes. They didn't have access to the best teams, but they made drama out of who they could talk to. And it just so happens if you do that and combine it with cars that go 200 miles an hour and can drive on the top of the Monte Carlo tunnel, that's a pretty compelling product.
[00:06:19] Jody Avirgan:
Yes, you heard Spencer correctly. The top of a tunnel in Monaco. F1 fans love to argue about whether a Formula 1 car could drive so fast that it could ride upside down along the ceiling of a tunnel. It's never actually happened, but folks like to speculate whether it's possible. It's the kind of factoid you might not pick up on if you just tuned in to watch a race; you might only see cars going round and round and flip the channel. But if you've seen Drive to Survive, you understand what you're seeing. You have some backstory. They've translated the sport for you and walked you right up to the edge of real-life fandom.
[00:06:55] Spencer Hall:
There’s a lot of teaching you how to watch a race involved in Drive to Survive; if you'd never watched a race before, you can pick out the cruxes, you can pick out the, the points of trauma. Like, our tires aren't working right. Like the driver is sick, right? It's hot, it's cold, it's rainy, whatever. You could pick out a real basic how-to-watch from just watching Drive to Survive.
[00:07:16] Jody Avirgan:
Spencer thinks of this as fan onboarding, and he says you have to be kind of subtle. You don't wanna over-explain.
[00:07:23] Spencer Hall:
Like they need to think like a video game designer. They need to go, “How do I teach you how to press A, press B, and to uh, look around with the joystick, right? Without really being overt about it.”
[00:07:35] Jody Avirgan:
[00:07:35] Spencer Hall:
Most of the time people do not understand the basic mechanics of the sport and that's okay. That's what sport—like, it's not a spectacle unless it can attract you with no prior knowledge, right? Which F1 can do ‘cause it's loud and it's fast and things go vroom.
[00:07:50] Jody Avirgan:
Of course, the timing of Drive to Survive didn't hurt either. Season two, the one that really took off, dropped on February 28th, 2020.
[00:08:03] Jess Smetana:
I was sitting home doing nothing like, you know, no sports going on, pandemic. I've already baked every type of bread. And my boyfriend asked if we could put it on. And by the second episode, I was screaming at my television. I didn't know what I was watching, but I knew that I loved all the characters.
[00:08:21] Jody Avirgan:
It's funny, Jess, your, your point about baking bread. I just had this memory pop into my head of like three days into lockdown, I made sun tea and I'd like never made sun tea before. And I don't think I consciously even realized I was making sun tea. I just looked up and there was sun tea, and I was like, “Oh, somewhere deep inside me is like the hippie waiting to make sun tea.” But then watching, you know, watching everything right when it pops up in front of you. And I mean, to me, like that is a huge part of this story.
[00:08:51] Jess Smetana:
I think there are a lot of TV phenomenons we experienced in the US during the pandemic, like the last dance documentary or the Tiger King Netflix series that were kind of flash in the pan moments, whereas Drive to Survive maybe outlasted the initial shutdown period.
[00:09:09] Jody Avirgan:
Let me just say, I think the pandemic explains so many things. I am baffled when I see any reporting or analysis about almost any phenomenon these days that doesn't lead with the pandemic, from politics to the economy to race and culture and work-life. It seems to me that any take should at least start with the fact that, you know, there's been this grinding global pandemic for, like three, years.
So yeah, I think the pandemic must have been a huge factor here. People were discovering the series in Spring 2020, and they were all talking about it, building a community of fans, ‘cause what else were we gonna do stuck in our houses?
[00:09:45] Jess Smetana:
I also thought one of the appeals was the international appeal of drivers being from different countries.
[00:09:51] Jody Avirgan:
[00:09:51] Jess Smetana:
And teams being based in different countries and races being all over the world. It felt like I was simultaneously watching sports, but also maybe a mini, mini travel documentary.
[00:10:00] Spencer Hall:
Yeah. It's, uh, the, the Rick Steves motorsport.
[00:10:02] Jody Avirgan:
Jess and Spencer say that once people discovered Drivve to Survive and were properly onboarded, what really hooked them—the thing that Liberty Media was putting front and center—were the characters, stakes, and storylines.
[00:10:17] Jess Smetana:
My co-host on my, another show that I do, Kate Fagan gave a TED Boston talk, I think. It was where she was explaining that the reason that we fall in love with sports are the stakes and the storylines.
[00:10:28] Kate Fagan:
This is what burns at the center of sports. In the Olympics, we have all agreed a gold medal matters. Same with the World Cup. And now paired with this agreed-upon stakes, we also have even deeper storytelling. Which is how we end up teary-eyed after a three-and-a-half minute NBC vignette about a Romanian gymnast.
[00:11:00] Jody Avirgan:
But here's where I'm a little more skeptical. Hooking someone on stakes and storylines might engage them for a few minutes or a few weeks, but does it always translate to long-term passion? Like, I don't watch competitive curling outside of the Winter Olympics. I'm just an expert on curling strategy for like two weeks every four years, and then I go, “See you in four years, Niklas Edin of Sweden. Good luck in your quest to be the only skip to win four Olympic medals.”
And then I move on. In fact, this disconnect between entertainment and actual viewership has started happening for me in other sports. I watch the HBO series Hard Knocks every season. I love it. Full of stakes, full of storylines. But I gave up watching actual NFL football years ago, and no matter how good Hard Knocks is, I'm not finding my way back to the actual games.
And this is where I think I'm at with F1. Sure. Drive through Survive is great TV, especially for those of us stuck inside, sipping our sun tea, having already watched every season of the Great British Bake-Off. If I'm being particularly cruel, I would maybe argue that F1 is like the Bored Ape NFT of sports.
In two years, will we all look back and say, “I can't believe I spent my time and money on that?” And if Drive to Survive doesn't create actual in-the-flesh fans, then for Liberty Media, why bother? Or maybe, the Netflix audience is the point. It's a little murky. Jess and Spencer, they think I'm overthinking it because the way they see it, Drive to Survive is clearly the gateway to watching F1 events live and going to the races.
[00:12:38] Jess Smetana:
Yeah, I wanna make it clear, because we've talked a lot about characters and storylines—
[00:12:43] Jody Avirgan:
[00:12:43] Jess Smetana:
—and different drivers and all of these things. But the sporting aspect of Formula 1 is awesome.
[00:12:50] Jody Avirgan:
[00:12:51] Jess Smetana:
It is so much fun to watch. It's competitive, exciting. It's fast. It's fun. It changes location to location. There's strategies involved. There's so much to debate. It has all of the things that we love about all the sports that are already extremely popular in the US. So, the way that I think a lot of people got hooked into it was through the non-sporting elements, and then maybe you stuck around and watched a race and realized, “Holy shit, this is awesome. I'm gonna keep watching these ‘cause it's really fun.”
[00:13:19] Jody Avirgan:
Another thing that leads to sustainability, and I love this one, the time that it airs.
[00:13:25] Spencer Hall:
Generally speaking, the times vary. It pops in on Sundays before football. You're gonna be able to watch them before American sports kick in. That means instead of spending half the day on the couch watching sports, I can spend the entire day on the couch watching sports.
[00:13:40] Jody Avirgan:
It sells itself!
[00:13:41] Spencer Hall:
Sometimes before everyone else gets up, it's ideal.
[00:13:45] Jody Avirgan:
[00:13:45] Spencer Hall:
I think people also, once they began watching the races, discovered a great advantage to many Euro sports, which is that they really do not like to go longer than two hours. It's compact. Well, if I'm watching a NASCAR race, it could be four hours. If F1, there are limits. They're like, “No, we can't take longer than two hours to finish this race.”
[00:14:07] Jody Avirgan:
Honestly, I think this is huge. I've always had this theory that one of the big reasons Premier League soccer took off in this country is because of the timeslot. Same thing: weekend mornings when there isn't anything else on, people are around looking for something to watch and hey, there it is on TV.
I'll take it a step further. If I was designing a new sport to break through, I might start with the time slot. Who cares what the sport is? Just be on at the right time. You know what, I've got my eye on? Tuesday nights, Tuesday night. Be honest, if you were bored on a Tuesday night and ESPN-2 was airing Tuesday night Frisbee starring washed-up handler Jody Avirgan hanging on for one last season of glory, you’d watch it, right? You'd watch it. You would.
Anyway, back on track. If Drive to Survive has helped F1 get a little toehold in the attention economy, they are now monetizing the heck out of it.
[00:14:59] Jess Smetana:
I think what comes next for Formula 1 will be interesting because they've gotten the bigger media rights investment from ESPN. The media rights now are, I think, 75 million dollars, whereas before they were paying 5 million.
[00:15:11] Jody Avirgan:
And there was a massive bidding war, right? I mean…
[00:15:12] Jess Smetana:
Yeah. And they stuck with ESPN, and they also wanna grow and they wanna go where the money is. And right now all the money is in the United States. I heard during the Miami Grand Prix week that Formula 1 was amazed at how in the United States you can slap a brand on anything; they could sell so much.
[00:15:30] Spencer Hall:
You're absolutely right. The number of experiences that you can roll up and have at an F1 race if you have the money. You can get track passes. You can get a ride along with an actual driver.
[00:15:42] Jody Avirgan:
It doesn't matter if only a fraction of Drive to Survive viewers become Formula 1 diehards because F1 can extract all this money from just a few fans. It's kind of protection if attention levels were to drop off.
[00:15:58] Spencer Hall:
Eventually, American interest will plateau, but once you get that, F1’s gonna be able to live off that market with a spectrum of experiences, gear, merch, memberships, like what does the NFL offer a fan in terms of an experience? Nothing, like you get a free hotdog and a drink in a box. That's about it.
[00:16:19] Jess Smetana:
Some guy in the back row puking on you.
[00:16:20] Spencer Hall:
Right. Imagine if your ticket dynamic, every race was the Super Bowl. That's kind of what we're looking at.
[00:16:33] Jody Avirgan:
Hm. So I do think I'm convinced: Formula 1 has set itself up really nicely. Perhaps it's not gonna be as massive as other sports in the US, but maybe we can think of it as a boutique sport. Let's say it's sitting at the table of fandom next to tennis. And unlike some of these other sports, it now has this bonus audience that streams a new season of Drive to Survive every year for as long as that show might run, or at least until there's a new season of Tiger King.
No surprise, lots of other people are trying to tap into the same success that F1 has found. There are a gazillion sports documentary imitators out there, and some of them are moving the needle. There's this one show, Welcome to Wrexham, where two celebrities buy a struggling Welsh soccer club. The show has drama and characters, of course, and at moments, the two celebrity owners ask themselves the same question that we're asking here, whether it's authentic and sustainable to buy a team and use a docu-series to bolster a club's fortune.
But, like, that's what the docu-series is about. So it goes round and round. It's like marketing about marketing. It's very weird. I stopped after four episodes. And yet a month into the show, the club reported a 20% increase in followers on social media. Their retail and merchandise sales brought in more than five times what they'd done the year before.
So like it or not, that is the attention economy formula. It worked for F1, and it's working for other sports. But what if you're trying to grow a team that happens to play a sport that's not trying to break through, but one that has been around for centuries, one that is suffering from a crisis of boringness? Up next, let's play ball: Banana style.
[00:18:29] Jody Avirgan:
A long time ago, I spent a summer working as a cameraman for a minor-league baseball team called the Savannah Sand Gnats. I got the job because a guy I met in a park told me that they needed a cameraman. I told him I was a film major and he was like, “Okay, show up at the ballpark tomorrow.” I did. I had no idea what I was doing.
The games were hot and long. I bet you like 10 people watched. But I got paid in chicken fingers and unlimited soda refills. Now, in every possible sense, that was a long time ago. These days, down in Savannah, things are very different. In 2015, a guy named Jesse Cole bought the Sand Gnats, and over the years he has changed a ton about the team's marketing strategy, how they grow their fan base, even the rules of the game, which we'll get into. But the first thing he changed was that name.
[00:19:18] Jesse Cole:
I'll never forget February 25th, 2016. So that, that's when we named the team the Bananas.
[00:19:23] Jody Avirgan:
When I interviewed Jesse, he was wearing his signature yellow tuxedo and was carrying his yellow bowler hat. I wouldn't be surprised if the guy even sleeps in yellow pajamas. Everything Jesse does with the Savannah Bananas, he does over the top, and the name switch wasn't his only big idea when he took over the team.
[00:19:41] Jesse Cole:
We said we could have a senior citizen dance team called the Banana Nanas. You know, we could have a male cheerleading team called The Man-Nanas. We could have a break dancing coach, a banana baby that we lift up every game, have our players do dances, and make it fun.
[00:19:52] Jody Avirgan:
Those are some pretty big changes in a pretty traditionalist sport. And no surprise, they got tons of pushback.
[00:20:00] Jesse Cole:
We got ripped apart. “Whoever came up with this name should be fired. You're an embarrassment to the city. You'll never sell a, a ticket.” I mean, “the owners should be thrown outta town.” I mean, we were ripped apart.
And then it became a conversation. “I like the name. I hate the name. I like the name. I hate the name.” And when you create conversation, then you can get legs to any type of campaign, story, brand, whatever you're trying to do.
[00:20:18] Jody Avirgan:
Now that Jesse had people's attention, he had to figure out what to do with it. He and his team began brainstorming ways to entertain the audience anytime the action slowed in a baseball game, which if you've been to a baseball game, happens a lot. If a batter was walking up to the plate, why not dance up to the plate? For a pitching change, why not drag the new pitcher in on a banana boat? Or why not have the player do the splits? Like banana splits.
[00:20:31] Baseball Announcer:
The world’s tallest hitter…
[00:20:51] Jesse Cole:
So we have a player on stilts. So a kid, that kid, the Dakota Allbritton, showed up to practice tryout and he was an average baseball player. He wasn't gonna make the team. And he said, “I actually have my stilts.” And I go, “Okay, can you hit in them?” And he said, “I never have.” I go, “Well, let's try.” And he gets in the batter's box on his stilts, 10 feet in the air, and starts hitting line drives. You made the team, kid.
[00:21:09] Baseball Announcer:
…and miracles do indeed happen, folks. You better believe Dakota “Stilts” Allbritton has lined his first base hit in his Bananas career.
[00:21:21] Jesse Cole:
Well, we have another guy that came up to me and said, “I'd like to light my bat on fire and come up to bat.” I was like, “Can you do that?” And he lit his bat on fire, came up to bat, and laced a base hit up the middle.
[00:21:31] Jody Avirgan:
The Bananas try everything. And they put it all out on social media.
[00:21:37] Jesse Cole:
We do 10 to 15 things every night on the field we'd ever done before.
[00:21:39] Jody Avirgan:
[00:21:39] Jesse Cole:
So, so 9 to 13 of those fail miserably, like every night. And, but we're obsessed with experimentation.
[00:21:45] Jody Avirgan:
So 9 of 13 fail. You only put the four that work out on social media?
[00:21:50] Jesse Cole:
Oh no. We share ones that go wrong. I mean, uh, we, we do share ones because that actually people appreciate that. It's just part of our ethos is we are not in the baseball business, we're in the entertainment business.
[00:21:59] Jody Avirgan:
The entertainment business, right. We don't generally think of sports this way, but this isn't exactly new. The Harlem Globetrotters and WWE took sports and turned them into pure entertainment, and even in super-traditional baseball, think about someone like PK Wrigley, who turned Wrigley Field into one of America's most beloved ballparks. He wasn't a sports guy, he was a gum guy.
And for decades, ask any long-suffering Cubs fan. He barely cared about whether the team was any good. He mostly just cared about the experience at the ballpark. Jerry Buss took the Lakers to the next level because he borrowed the idea of sexy dancers and front-row seats and splashy marketing from Hollywood. He also drafted Magic Johnson, but you get my point.
What's different with Jesse is that he knows within hours of a new idea whether it's going to be a hit or a flop. Because… it’s the internet. You get feedback immediately.
[00:22:52] Jesse Cole:
Because we're pumping out so much content. I mean, 10, 20 pieces a day. Even in the off-season, you start to see, obviously, what works, what doesn’t.
And so our talented team is, we're filming and we're saying, “All right, ooh, that that generated, you know, 200,000 shares.” We care more about shares than we do likes, comments, or views. Shares is, you know, is it remarkable? Do people wanna put their name behind it? Put themself behind it. Is it cool enough to share? And that's how we build our whole marketing, you know, machine is that everyone we're posting things that everyone wants to share with others ‘cause it's so unique, so different.
[00:23:20] Jody Avirgan:
Be different. If there's one way to summarize what Jesse's doing with the Bananas, I think that's it.
[00:23:28] Jesse Cole:
Our mindset on everything is whatever's normal, do the exact opposite. If you're gonna do things that are normal, you're gonna get normal results.
[00:23:34] Jody Avirgan:
But again, I have to wonder, does all this attention actually translate to real-world fandom? It seems like Jesse's answer is yes; Bananas attendance has increased dramatically. There's more tickets sold throughout the season, more sellout games.
But are people coming for the baseball or the same spectacle they saw on TikTok? What exactly are they fans of? What's more, Jesse started to notice that something at the games was… missing.
[00:24:04] Jesse Cole:
We were watching fans leave games early, over and over, and again, even with all the entertainment and all the fun and everything we were doing. So we said: could we develop a game that's faster, more entertaining in a two-hour time limit?
[00:24:13] Jody Avirgan:
Eureka! Reinvent the very game itself. And he changed it so much that he stopped calling it baseball. Now the bananas play, you guessed it, Banana Ball.
[00:24:25] Jesse Cole:
We’re all in on a two-hour time game where batters can't step out of the batter's box. There's no bunting ‘cause bunting sucks. You can literally steal first. If a fan catches a foul ball, it's an out. I'll tell you when it happens though, we’ve had it happen eight times, fans go nuts. It's one of the coolest things. There's no walks, and we're playing nine innings in an hour and 50 minutes, which a normal game is over three hours. So because of this new game we developed, we limited the traditional game that we used to play and we only do this.
[00:24:49] Jody Avirgan:
Well, you know, you're hinting at it here. You know, you're almost telling me that you didn't, you don't think regular baseball is fun.
[00:24:57] Jesse Cole:
Well, I, I, I will say regular baseball, what MLB is, they have the best baseball players in the world. There's no question. And they will always be the best baseball league in the world. We're not playing that game.
[00:25:06] Jody Avirgan:
[00:25:07] Jesse Cole:
We’re not gonna be the best baseball team in the world, but we're gonna be the most fun baseball.
[00:25:10] Jody Avirgan:
For a few years, the Bananas would play the traditional way when they played at other stadiums. They could only play Banana Ball at home and only for certain games.
So Jesse created a spinoff team, the Party Animals, sort of like the Washington Generals to their Harlem Globetrotters. That way they can play Banana Ball against the Party Animals over and over. At the end of the 2022 season, the Bananas left their traditional league entirely and went independent. Now they don't have to play regular baseball at all.
And look, I'll say it, someone needed to push baseball to be less boring. But I do find it funny that Jesse bought a baseball team, renamed it, found new ways of marketing it to bring more people to the games, but then to keep those people in the seats, he had to change the game itself.
[00:25:54] Jesse Cole:
The reality is like the, the baseball purists, which is getting smaller and smaller every single day, we're not for them. We don't need to appease them. There's so many people that don't like what we do and they hate what we do, but there's a much bigger demographic that I think people want to come out and have fun and see things they've never seen before on a baseball field.
[00:26:11] Jody Avirgan:
Banana Ball is still a sport, I think, but it's closer to the intersection of sports and some sort of dance and performance art. As with Drive to Survive, the gap between storytelling and sport has basically collapsed down to zero, and Jesse's fine with that. He really doesn't see a distinction between marketing and gameplay. That's really clear when Jesse names his competition. I don't mean who the Savannah Bananas play against, I mean who he thinks he's competing with for the attention of Bananas fans.
[00:26:43] Jesse Cole:
It would be Amazon, it'd be Disney, it'd be Chick-fil-A, it'd be Ritz-Carlton. It's be, it'd be against the companies that, uh, increase the expectations for the customer and the guest that put it to another level. And if, you know, you can get something shipped in an hour from Amazon, if, you know Chick-fil-A, you can go through a fast food like this and be treated well, we wanna deliver that type of experience.
[00:27:01] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah. It’s, it's, uh, it's funny, I, I'm just noticing you, you're very comfortable moving between saying something is a game versus a show, versus entertainment. Like, you know, it seems like it's all the same to you.
[00:27:14] Jesse Cole:
Yeah, it's, it's, for us it's always, it's always a show. However, it's a different show every night, and that's what makes it interesting. The Bananas lost games to the Party Animals last year. They lost five. You know, that happens. You can go to a game. In front of 10,000 people, the Bananas lose. But that's part of what a, a great show. There's great moments in shows, and there's moments that are tough and there's challenging, and we want the show to be unique every night.
[00:27:35] Jody Avirgan:
Yeah, and I mean, you know, that is why people talk about sports as sort of bulletproof in the marketplace, because at the end of the day, something's gonna get played, and you don't know how, what the outcome is and if that's just gonna keep people.
[00:27:47] Jesse Cole:
Well, you want something to root for.
[00:27:47] Jody Avirgan:
[00:27:48] Jesse Cole:
Everybody wants something to root for. And I think that's what sports has. But sports has to continue to reinvent because I'll tell you, especially with baseball in a sense, we've all seen the similar highlights. We've seen a home run, we've seen a strikeout, we've seen great plays. Our guys right now are working on catching the balls doing backflips and catching the ball behind the back and doing trick pitches, throwing between the legs. Like those are the things our players are working on ‘cause you've never seen them before. We want a different level of highlight.
[00:28:11] Jody Avirgan:
Worth mentioning: the Bananas also have a docu-series. It's called Banana Land. It's on ESPN+. So as you can see, Jesse is doing all of it.
[00:28:21] Jesse Cole:
Our merchandise numbers are through the roof. We're doing hundreds of orders every single day from all over the world. So that's drawing people in, which creates a fan. Then people see them in the shirts. That creates a conversation. “Have you seen a game?” “No, but I've watched a game on ESPN. Oh, did you see it?” And then all of a sudden it creates more conversation. Then the ultimate level is seeing a game in person. Once you see that, then you become hopefully a bigger fan, and then this flywheel continues.
[00:28:44] Jody Avirgan:
The flywheel of fandom. There are a lot of places you can hop on: marketing, merchandise, media, the game itself, but they all feed into each other, and if Jesse does his job, no matter where you hop on, you're gonna keep going round and round, gaining momentum. I, of course, am a little skeptical.
Again, anything that feels like it's largely a gimmick or a marketing ploy… I don't know. I mean, how many times can you watch an umpire dance while calling strikes or someone on stilts try to bat? The skeptic in me wonders if this will last. I think about the world of digital news where I've made my home. The fate of entire companies have hinged on the fickleness of attention, the particulars of to whom and how Facebook shared your content.
Whole companies just pivoted to video and then we're left holding the bag. So, like, with one tweak of the TikTok algorithm, does all the attention on the Savannah Bananas go away? Are we gonna see Jesse pivot to pickleball? And yet the optimist in me just knows that someone as creative as Jesse will find a way to keep one-upping himself.
[00:29:51] Jesse Cole:
The future of sports is not a spectator sport. I think the idea to get fans involved in every aspect of the game, whether it is betting, whether predicting what's gonna happen, whether it's catching a foul ball, which can impact a game. Then you get fans to feel like they are truly a part of something and that gives them ownership to feel engaged in the experience.
[00:30:12] Jody Avirgan:
Jesse quit playing the sports economy—like, he tossed the rule book aside, and he joined a related but decidedly different world: the attention economy. Both the bananas and Drive to Survive show how much marketing matters and maybe more than ever marketing matters the most.
We will always gather to watch sports. I believe that because we just like communal events. But I do think that in order for a sport to stay with us—not just for the next year, but for the next decade, the next generation, to have a seat at that table—something has to shift and that's something may very well force the sport itself to change.
They might be subtle, but I would not be shocked if the baseball my grandchildren enjoy doesn't look anything like the baseball that I've seen. People will have to start thinking like Jesse or Liberty Media. How do we hold your attention? Is what we're giving you better than movies and TV, better than a video game, better than a night at a nice restaurant, better than whatever else you'd be doing on a Tuesday night.
Tuesday night, though? Tuesday night Frisbee. That one's gonna stick. Seriously. Anyone listening, that's a free idea. You can have that. Just get in touch. I'll help make it happen.
On the next episode of Good Sport, I’ve always been someone who hates to lose. Turns out there's a reason for that:
[00:31:42] Ian Robertson:
You have this emotional reaction to losing, which in the brain corresponds to decline in dopamine activity in the brain's reward network. And it's actually very close to some of the pain centers of the brain, so it feels like pain.
[00:31:59] Jody Avirgan:
We look at how a losing team keeps going. Good Sport is brought to you by the TED Audio Collective. It's hosted by me, Jody Avirgan. This show is produced by TED. This episode was written and produced by Poncie Rutsch. Our team includes Isabel Carter, Camille Peterson, Sarah Nics, Jimmy Gutierrez, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, and Roxanne Hai Lash.
Jake Gorsky is our sound designer and mix engineer. Fact-checking for this episode by Julia Dickerson. Thanks again to Jess and Spencer. Be sure to check out their F1 podcast as well as all the great work they do. And if you're heading to a Savannah Bananas game, or you wanna buy the rights to Tuesday night Frisbee, get in touch. Our email is email@example.com. Thanks to everyone who's reached out so far. We really love hearing from you. Make sure you're following Good Sport in your favorite podcast app, so you get every episode delivered straight to your device. And while you're doing that, leave us a rating and a review.
We'll be back soon with more Good Sport. My name is Jody Avirgan. See ya soon.