Athletx Goes Bananas with Blockbuster Partnership 

Athletx forms partnership with the Savannah Bananas for an experience-filled competition this summer in Cleveland. 

Athletx Goes Bananas with Blockbuster Partnership 

The Savannah Bananas, whose appeal seemingly has no bounds, are getting into the youth sports game—and they’ve enlisted Athletx Sports Group to ensure its a home run. The two likeminded organizations announced a partnership in March that will, at least for 2024, culminate in the inaugural Youth Banana Ball Tournament, occurring Aug. 7-10, at Victory Sports Park in Cleveland. 

The general idea is to take the model that has made the Bananas so popular—the music, festivities, atmosphere, etc.—and adapt it for the 68 teams who make the cut for Cleveland. 

Yes, among the variations for this event, which will adopt Banana Ball rules, is Athletx faces the unviable task of judging entry videos for entry. With more than 700 applications and counting, it could come down to splitting hairs by the end. 

But therein lies the growth potential for the Bananas-Athletx partnership. With more than 10 times the number of allotted teams vying to participate, there is room to expand to additional dates and programs in coming years. With no slowdown in interest in the Bananas, demand among youth teams isn’t likely to slow down. 

“We feel honored that they chose Athletic Sports Group because we have built our company on experiential events rather than competition,” says Jim Haddaway, co-founder and CEO of Athletx. 

Here, we share how conversations behind the giants in pro baseball and youth tournaments bore fruit into a full-fledged partnership. 

Bananas Backstory 

By 2016, baseball in Savannah was in a major slump. The minor league team struck out and an upstart summer baseball squad wasn’t catching on. With only dozens of tickets sold and finances in the red, the franchise rebranded—not without some derision—to the Bananas. To be fair, some may still consider the name ludicrous, but its playful tone and the unusual game style that followed, has proven a much-needed change-up for America’s Pastime. 

“It's hard to get a younger crowd to watch a baseball game because of the speed of the game,” laments Haddaway, a diehard Baltimore Orioles fan who coached his children through travel leagues.  

In 2022, the Bananas officially went all-in—as if the mascot and bright yellow jerseys weren’t enough—on becoming The Harlem Globetrotters of baseball. The team left the Coastal Plains League and began touring nationally playing Banana Ball.  

Fittingly, there are nine rules designed to hasten the pace and add fun. Highlights include: 

  • A time limit (90 minutes for the youth event) 
  • No stepping out of the batter’s box 
  • No bunting and no walks 
  • Players can steal first base 
  • If a fan catches a foul ball, y’errr out. 

“They really think about what the fans want to see and keep them engaged and happy throughout the whole process in the game,” raves Haddaway. “We do a lot of the same things in the youth space.” 

For the Love of the Game 

Few organizations are as influential as the Louisville, Ky.-based Athletx has evolved into since its 2012 opening day.  The number of established baseball and softball brands under Athletx’s umbrella is impressive. 

For as successful as each of the group’s events are, Haddaway can’t help but worry about families’ expectations. Haddaway isn’t concerned about his team’s ability to show participants a good time, but travel sports are often seen as a vehicle to a college scholarship or pro career by parents shelling out big bucks.  

That’s simply not realistic, says Haddaway, who runs his business and events focused on the few days that teams are in town for a tournament. Great competition will be found there, but so will after-game dance parties, inflatables for family members, and other activities that don’t involve a bat or mitt. 

“My memories don’t have to do with the games,” says Haddaway of his travel ball experience. “It’s going to the restaurants, swimming in the hotels. I’ve tried to emulate that with this business.” 

As a case in point, Haddaway recalls hosting a team from Kuwait—comprised of ex-Pats and/or military families. They lost each of their games, but you wouldn’t know it from the pictures they took or smiles throughout the week. 

Fans First Entertainment 

The Savannah Bananas are the name sports fans know, but Owner Jessie Cole named his company, Fans First Entertainment. They are the words his teams, including the Party Animals, live by. 

National coverage on traditional outlets and dozens of social media viral posts have made the Bananas the toughest ticket in town. Fans looking to catch a game during the 2024 tour had to enter a lottery just for the right to buy a ticket. More than 2 million people signed up but only half scored coveted seats. Games are sold out in Major League Baseball stadiums, including in Houston and Cleveland. 

One of the major perks for the Youth Banana Ball Tournament is everyone gets a ticket to the Savannah Bananas-Party Animals game at Progressive Field, home of the Cleveland Guardians. Savannah players and coaches will also work with the kids, ages 9-14, during clinics at Victory Sports Park, and the games will use Banana Ball rules.  

While other groups have attempted non-sanctioned versions of the unusual style, this will be the first youth tournament officially endorsed by the Bananas. Both sides were drawn to their experience-first formula.

That cache is part of the drawing power, which is so strong that first-come, first-serve wasn’t a practical way to fill out the roster spots. Teams have to earn their way in by proving they could capture the Bananas’ spirit. Within a week, more than 700 teams submitted various videos of trick plays and dance moves to prove they belong in this unique event. 

“We are proud to bring the game of Banana Ball to the youth level,” said Cole in a press release. “We’ve seen countless videos of kids performing trick plays, celebrating, and having fun on the field in pure Banana Ball style. This is great for the game, and I can’t wait to see what the youth teams bring to this tournament." 

Leading Off 

For the leadoff events, Athletx and the Bananas agreed to a few parameters to guarantee success. These include fitting the tournament into the Savannah tour dates between the school year so the players and families could go a game. They also had to find a city with the right facilities to host a large youth tournament—including fields for various age groups. 

Given the excitement for Banana Ball and this budding partnership, the numbers may not allow for future events to be built around a Bananas game. Haddaway envisions several regional tournaments using the unusual rules and incorporate players and coaches when available.  

Regardless of the specifics, the emphasis will be on having fun, promises Haddaway. 


Photo Credit: Savannah Bananas