Best of 2023

The Best of 2023 Awards. The Best in Game Operations and Entertainment are honored for excellence, creativity and production.

Best Entertainment Group:

Performance Group whose work was fresh, creative and interesting, serving as a valuable tool for their team and in their community. Providing quality entertainment and additional value for fans. All sports team performance groups are eligible. Consider quality, uniqueness, and marketplace value.

Winners: Banana Nanas – 216 Stix – Ushertainers

Ushertainers (Saint Paul Saints)

The Saints Ushertainers improv characters share the top prize for the second year in a row.  The rotating troupe covers the ballpark creating unique moments and experiences for fans rooted in the Saints “Fun is Good” philosophy. They also provide sponsor value, social media content and perhaps the most flexible entertainment options available to a team.  New characters have been added over the years, providing countless mixture of improvisational talent.

One panelist raved about their ability to perform anywhere and at anytime throughout the event.  Another reiterated they always provide something fresh.  Perhaps most importantly another game operations inside exclaimed, “It’s innovative, funny, and made me want to go to a game.” 

Which is really what it is all about.

216 Stix (Cleveland Cavaliers)

Cavaliers drum performance team continues to shine in Cleveland.  Their varied and innovative style with custom music pieces have become a signature attraction for the NBA team.  In addition their popularity and flexibility has allowed the Cavs to send the team to its minor league properties (Cleveland Monsters (AHL) and Cleveland Charge (G League) teams as regular game elements.  The Cavs have also elevated the team into their new team introductions.

A panelist from a NHL noted “I know how difficult it can be to find drummers talented enough to make it on a professional team. 216 Stix have a large team full of talent and have a ton of fun. The “stomp” style is always fun and leads to creative rhythms and beats.”   The Stix also won Best Entertainment Group in 2020.

Banana Nanas (Savanah Bananas)

The Savanah Bananas are not short on talent and options, but they never stop looking for more.  Which has lead them to creative turns by Jesse Cole, who knew early on this is exactly the type of attraction he wanted:

When Savannah’s favorite yellow clad ringmaster, Jesse Cole, first acquired our summer league team in 2015, he asked the general public for help with several things. For one, he asked for help with creating a team identity and now the Savannah Bananas are a household name. Jesse also announced that he desired to have a senior ladies dance team. (BVMSports)

The shines in their performances, adding just the right about style, flair and ridiculousness to fit in squarely with the Banana Brand.

Ben Hill from said “It’s a concept worth continuing to hit on is when we think about drawing people to live events, it’s always about getting families and kids, but I think it’s important to really include older fans as well. They’re obviously a huge part of the fan base and also give them opportunities to perform and excel. So I just think it’s a great way to mix it up, include the whole demographic, and then, of course, people love it. Who doesn’t love dancing Grandmas? It’s a pretty tough concept to go wrong with once you execute it and execute it well, like the Bananas did.”

One of our smartest panelist also noted they are a clever way to engage an overlooked older demographic, one that has purchasing power and who happens to be the last generation who universally loves baseball.

Category Winners:

Listen to the Best of 2023 Audio Round Table Best Entertainment Group Debate

Amanda Greco, Jon Cudo, Benjamin Hill, and Tyler Cofer discussed the best entertainment group. Benjamin praised the Banana Nanas for their unique concept and high-level entertainment, appealing to all demographics. Amanda also expressed support for the 216 Stix commending their versatility and ability to engage fans. Tyler emphasized the importance of originality and consistency, mentioning the Savannah Bananas as a prime example of a group that adapts to their fan base.

They discuss all the categories and winners with a panel of Jon Cudo, Amanda Greco, Tyler and Benjamin Hill. – December 2023 Party in the Back Podcast.

Best Game Night Promotion:

What single game or series promotion was most effective and creative, serving as a tool for teams to entertain and draw more fans. Consider creativity, entertainment value, media exposure, drawing power, and execution of the operations. We also level the playing field by considering budget constraints to minor league teams. A promotion with the ability to positively affect the entire fan experience by touching multiple areas of marketing and presentation. For example: A Military Appreciation Night which positively pays tribute to the military with a camouflage hat giveaway, military ticket discount, use of military families for in-game promotions, video package of players speaking to their appreciation for military families, and a surprise reunion of a soldier and their family.

Winner: Ref Appreciation Night (Vancouver Giants)

One fellow hockey executive said “Such a simple idea… yet innovative beyond belief because no one else did it.  Every other team WITH the ability to have done this should be kicking themselves for not thinking of it first!  So easy… yet so good!”

Sometimes the BEST ideas are sitting there right in front of us, like this one. Ref Appreciation Night, complete with the entire team in Ref sweaters.

The idea was playful, fun and incredibly memorable…capturing millions of impression for the Vancouver Giants.

Of course the jerseys were auctioned, including (in an unprecedented move) the alternate beige Ref Jerseys.

Striped Sweaters Steal Show

Honorable Mentionable: Exploding Whales Night (Eugene Emeralds) and Deaf Culture Night (Rochester Red Wings)

Exploding Whales Night (Eugene Emeralds)

Two other promotions garnered Honorable Mentions from our Panel.

The Eugene Emeralds rebrand to the Oregon Exploding Whale was a revelation in Eugene this summer. The team paid homage to an iconic moment in Oregon history when a whale was exploded in Oregon on November 12, 1970.  The huge dead sperm whale washed up on the shore of Florence, Oregon. The local authorities decided to remove the whale by using dynamite to blow it up and dispose of the remains. However, the explosion caused large chunks of blubber and whale flesh to rain down on nearby buildings and spectators, causing damage and creating a terrible smell. The decision to use dynamite was made without proper planning or consideration for the consequences, and the event has since become a cautionary tale about the importance of proper disposal methods for large animal carcasses.

Our Roundtable guest Ben Hill covers this blubber-laden blunder in explosive detail here: Emeralds and Exploding Whales in Eugene

The team created an amazing night of random connection, funny anecdotes and related fun that engaged the audience with an unmatched playful reverence to the moment.

One pro sports team executive added “the merch alone is enough to get me to want to go. When there’s such an off-the-wall concept and idea, it allows for some incredible creativity in stadium when it comes to drop-ins, contests, and pump ups.”

Deaf Culture Night (Rochester Red Wings)

The Rocherster Red Wings upgraded an “Awareness” night.  Aiming not to make others aware of the deaf people, rather celebrate the culture about it.

The game highlighted the unique social behavior and norms for those who are hearing impaired.  The game in partnership with Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf and Rochester School for the Deaf includes American Sign Language jerseys.

Highlights from the night:

  • Interpreters from Interpretek will be on site during the game at Frontier Field to assist fans at the Ticket Office, concession stands, guest services, Team Store, and various other locations around the ballpark.
  • The 7th inning will be a “signed inning,” without public address announcements or music, to raise further awareness about deafness.
  • Portions of the game will be captioned on the videoboard.
  • The National Anthem and God Bless America will be signed by RIT/NTID and RSD students.
  • Rochester School for the Deaf will be collecting school supplies during the game.

Rochester has a large population of deaf people who were grateful for the team embracing the diversity of Rochester’s rich Deaf culture and American Sign Language community.

Also hear our interview with GM Dan Mason about the Night here:

October 2023 Party in the Back Podcasts

Category Winners:

  • Best of 2023 – Ref Appreciation Night (Vancouver Giants)
  • Best of 2022 – DIY Jersey Night (Pensacola Blue Wahoos) – Dances with Wolves (Rapid City Rush) – Noche Mexicana Night (Dallas Stars)
  • Best of 2021 – Hershey Bears COVID Teddy Bear Toss
  • Best of 2020 – Hershey Bears Teddy Bear Toss
  • Best of 2019 – Helen McGuckin Night (Charleston Riverdogs)
  • Best of 2018 – Joseph P. Reilly and the Amazing Technicolor Ballpark – Charleston Riverdogs
  • Best of 2017 – Total Eclipse Game and Bob Ross Night
  • Best of 2016 – Purple Game, Purple Game
  • Best of 2015 – Swipe Right Night – Atlanta Hawks
  • Best of 2014 – Seinfeld Night – Brooklyn Cyclones
  • Best of 2013 – Star Wars Night – Toledo Walleye
  • Best of 2012 – Silent Night at Taylor University
  • Best of 2011 – Boston Bruins Military Appreciation Night
  • Best of 2010 – Salute to Bubblewrap (Lowell Spinners)
  • Best of 2009 – LeBron’s Powder Toss Night (Cleveland Cavaliers) and What Could Have Been Night (Bowling Green Hot Rods)
  • Best of 2008 – World’s Largest Pillow Fight (Kane County Cougars) and Fan Bailout Plans (St. Louis Blues)
  • Best of 2007 – Bob L. Head Bobblehead Giveaway (Portland Beavers)/150 years of Toilet Paper (Pensacola Pelicans)
  • Best of 2006 – Brazilian Carnival (Cleveland Cavaliers)
  • Best of 2005 – Michael Jackson Tribute (Lake Elsinore Storm)
  • Best of 2004 – Mullet Night (Manchester Monarchs)
  • Best of 2003 – Awful Night (Altoona Curve)
  • Best of 2002 – Hawks Playoff Guarantee (Atlanta Hawks)
  • Best of 2001 – Red, White & Blue Out 9/11 Tribute (Texas A & M)

Also on

Water Cooler Moments are those that create conversation.  Mascot skit, theme night, giveaway or wacky contest.  We seek them out and serve them up on DAILY Monday through Friday.  Click on the Water Cooler on our home page to see this fresh daily content. Water Cooler Pages.  Memorable promotions like these are featured every day: Refs are Having a Moment, Dynamite Decisions in Oregon and Deaf “Awareness” Upgrade by the Red Wings

The Roundtable Podcast discussed the importance of creative and effective promotions for teams. Benjamin highlighted the significance of promotions in enhancing the overall fan experience and fostering a culture of creativity within each franchise. Jon emphasized the need for promotions to resonate with the fan base and show a connection with the community. Amanda pointed out the importance of integrating promotions into the game in multiple ways, while Tyler underscored the importance of starting with the fan base and ensuring the idea resonates with them. Listen to the December 2023 Party in the Back Podcast.

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