Pitching ideas

It may be sacrilege to say it – but is it time for us to learn from American sports and put on a bit more of a spectacle?

Soccertainment, monster trucks and multi-ball were just a few of the ideas a Budweiser advert from the Noughties jokingly threw at its British audience, with the reassuring pay-off: “You do the football, we’ll do the beer.” It worked, and we laughed, because deep down that’s what a lot of us in this country think of American sports. Smoke and mirrors and celebs and kiss-cam. Anything to distract the viewers from the fact that we don’t find their sports that interesting. People complain that they’re either too slow or complex (NFL), with nothing much at stake in the game (NBA), or there are just far too many matches (MLB). 208 million people didn’t watch this year’s Super Bowl so they could see a couple of sacks, a touchdown or a third-down interception. It was the Real Slim Shady, Snoop Dogg and some crazy pyrotechnics. Or, rather, multi-pyrotechnictainment.

At this point, you’re either nodding along because you’ve heard it all before or shaking your head because you think I don’t get American sports. Both are probably true. One thing I think we can all agree on, though, is that baseball really is dull. The most exciting thing to happen to the sport is a two-minute clip from Moneyball where Brad Pitt (playing Oakland As general manager Billy Beane) lives out the ultimate office fantasy – wait for it – by telling his colleagues he knows better than them. Using numbers and rhetoric. Real saucy.

Ten years after that Budweiser advert, and entirely unrelated, Jesse Cole founded the Savannah Bananas. Yet if he were to see that advert now, he’d probably think: “Yeah, those are some cool ideas, why not?” Here’s a man who sees sport, above all, as a way of making someone smile.

The Savannah Bananas were born out of a dream to bring colour, spirit and – above all – entertainment to baseball, a sport that has seen floundering interest. Cole was obsessed with Disney, and wanted to tap into that free-spirited fun with baseball: “We’re not in the baseball business. We’re in the entertainment business.” And boy, are they entertaining.

They joined the Coastal Plain League in 2016 and have sold out every single game since their first season. The league plays a twist on normal baseball, with the game sped up to create more drama and excitement. Despite their two league titles, the Bananas are defined by their undeniable X-factor. Back flips, trick shots, dance routines and playing on stilts are what draw in the crowds. Not to mention the vibrant colour of the whole spectacle. It’s Bananas. Now, six years later, they are starting to take off in the public eye, with roughly 2.5 million viewers on TikTok. Move over, Disneyland, Bananaland is here.

It’s not just cheap gimmicks that they use to shake things up, either. They have an all-male cheerleader team, a senior citizen dance squad and a breakdancing coach. All three are breaking boundaries of varying degrees, and while there’s no hidden political message, you can’t help but feel we all need a bit of their energy in our lives. Cole isn’t using entertainment to make up for anything; he’s using it to enhance the sport. There can be no cynical laughing at that. It’s innovation and it’s working. Oh, and the entry ticket covers everything, from your hotdog to your hot seat. If anything, that’s just makes life easier.

Above all, however, the team is competitive. This isn’t the Harlem Globetrotters going on a vanity tour – they play to win, and that’s where this mix becomes interesting. They’ve won more games than any team in the league since they joined. It’s not a case of being entertaining or being competitive – the Savannah Bananas are having their cake and eating it. And so are the fans.

Now, let’s spin all this around, play devil’sadvocate and take an American perspective on British sports. Well, there’s too much play-acting and time-wasting in soccer, too many strange rules in rugby, and boy, isn’t cricket just the slowest… game… ever? Five days to finish a match… and it still ends in a draw.

If you can’t fundamentally change the rules – and honestly, that’s quite tricky – why not embrace the Savannah Bananas’ vibe? Even if you do think cricket’s quirks are its charm (and I do), or that football is the best game in the world (and I do). Frankly, a bit of Savannah’s somethin’ somethin’ can’t hurt. Especially when you consider how many sports are clinging on for dear life in the UK, with low ticket sales and declining interest.

Let’s face it: not everyone going to a game is going to be mad about the actual sport on show. Football is an exception, of course. But other sports will need to find creative ways of filling seats or they’ll be heading for extinction. Darts has very much embraced chaos, while cricket is bending its way towards the Bananas, with T20 and now The Hundred. It’s inevitable that more sports will soon follow suit, little by little. And no, readers from the Jockey Club, that doesn’t mean booking Steps for a ‘post-racing DJ and dance set’.

If we learn just a little from the Savannah Bananas or American sports in general, it’s that other forms of entertainment work. We don’t have to take sport so seriously that we can’t have fun, or have so much fun that we don’t care. Let’s have both. Extra-time multi-ball perhaps not, though.

Rory Fairfax is the editor of the Fitzdares Times.

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