Stacey Moore hopes that one day cornhole will make it into the Olympics. (Illustration: Calum Heath)
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Cornhole Is a Pro Sport Now

The American Cornhole League wants to turn a game that's typically played with one hand holding a beer—and possibly named for an indecent part of the human body—into an international spectator sport

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A big man who usually has an unhurried gait, Stacey Moore picked up his pace to a near jog. It was, after all, what could be one of the most important nights of his life. 

Wearing a blue-and-white-striped dress shirt and black slacks, Moore led me through a maze of hallways connecting Pennsylvania’s Valley Forge Casino Resort with a Radisson Hotel.

“This is big,” Moore said. He was generally a bit of a quiet talker, maybe on the shy side, with an affable smile that made it seem like he was always on the verge of a punch line. “Tonight is really big for me.” 

Moore is commissioner of the American Cornhole League (ACL), a four-year-old operation that has helped turn a tailgate game into an organized sport. It was early August, and the league was hosting a nationally televised broadcast, featuring players from three countries, as part of its six-day world championships.

Live television has its obvious obstacles, but perhaps the biggest one for Moore were the thousand players in the basement of the casino, tossing beanbags into holes and getting piss drunk. Moore told me it’s not uncommon to have to yank his players away from the bar for a round. 

But that’s not even the worst of it. “One guy, we started our broadcast, and he’s nowhere to be found,” Moore said. “Turns out he was in the can. He’s supposed to be on live TV, and he’s taking a dump.”

Moore shook his head at the idea of that happening again. 

The league had its first exposure on ESPN in July 2016, albeit on the network’s online-only ESPN3. Its big break came a year later, with the first-ever nationally televised cornhole tournament on ESPN2. This year, the conclusion of the international World Cup tournament, one event that’s part of the world championships, was shown live on ESPN8: The Ocho, which, to catch you up, was initially a parody created in the movie Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. The Ocho became such a cultural phenomenon that the network decided to turn ESPN2 into the Ocho once a year in August. Its slogan? “Bringing you the finest in seldom-seen sports from around the globe since 1999. If it’s almost a sport, we’ve got it here.”

The idea that cornhole is categorized as “almost a sport” doesn’t seem to help the league’s credibility. It also doesn’t help that the World Cup tournament was broadcast after cherry-pit spitting, acrobatic pizza trials, and slippery stairs, in which leotard-wearing contestants try to, well, you’ve already figured it out.

The World Cup is just one of several titles on the line at the overall tournament. For a newcomer, it’s an overwhelming lineup of contests: the All Forces Championship for veterans; doubles play broken down into seniors, women’s, and mixed competition; something called the Devour Man of the Year. When asked whether there’s one that stands above the rest, organizers kept insisting they’re all somehow equally important. 

Inside an auditorium underneath the Radisson, Moore surveyed the scene. He let out a deep breath. The sobriety of his players aside, things were looking close to ready.

The pressure of a live broadcast wasn’t the only thing on the line. Moore created the World Cup portion of the event hoping that cornhole would earn more respect and attention in other countries. He’ll need both if he’s to meet his goal of getting cornhole into the Olympics.

That’s right. Moore wants a game that’s typically played with one hand holding a beer—and possibly named for an indecent part of the human body—in the Olympics. 


There’s no clear explanation of how the game got its start. The origin story I heard many times at the world championships—that a 15th-century German cabinetmaker named Matthias Kuepermann invented the game after witnessing kids throwing rocks in a hole—is likely a myth, said Gerald Gems, professor emeritus at North Central College near Chicago. But his research did find that Chicagoans were playing the game as far back as the 1970s. 

Moore, who hails from Charlotte, North Carolina, got into cornhole after creating a company that sets up tailgate-style games for corporate events. He noticed that people took cornhole far more seriously than beer pong or other games, so he started the American Cornhole League in 2015, which, as it turns out, wasn’t even the first cornhole league. Frank Geers first played the game in the Cincinnati Bengals’ parking lot in the late 1990s. At the time, he worked for a business doing specialty marketing, figuring out how to get brand logos placed in unconventional places. “What I saw, when I saw cornhole, was a billboard waiting to happen,” Geers recalled. For a few years, he worked trying to sell companies on the idea of putting their logos on cornhole boards, before having an even bigger epiphany: he would create the world’s first professional cornhole league. In 2005, Geers incorporated the American Cornhole Organization. “We got laughed at for five to seven years when we started saying this could be a sport,” Geers said. There are now at least three pro cornhole leagues in the United States, with tournaments and branded products and claims to be the game’s official governing body. Moore’s ACL, however, remains the only one to be broadcast on national TV.

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According to cornhole color analyst Trey Ryder (right), pros land about 80 percent of their shots. (Photo: Eric Barton)

Among the things pro cornhole leagues have done for the sport is create standardized rules. Players get a point for landing on the board and three points for dropping a bag into the hole. Each team tosses four bags, alternating turns, and then the low score is subtracted from the high score; if one team sinks two bags and the other sinks just one, the first team gets three points. They typically play to 21 points, but it can sometimes take a half-hour or more to reach that number.

The pros even have a few tricks you likely haven’t seen. The first player to throw often tries to land the bag in front of the hole, blocking the other team from being able to slide their bags in. Sometimes they’ll even stack them up, a little beanbag wall. That forces the other team to attempt an airmail, or a toss with a high arc that ideally drops the beanbag right in the hole. For those of us who know the game mostly from football tailgates, the accuracy of the pros is shocking. Trey Ryder, the league’s expert commentator, said the pros land about 80 percent of their shots. 


On the afternoon before the big international championship, Cody Henderson was in the bowels of the Valley Forge Casino, worried. Henderson is one of the game’s best-known players, the Derek Jeter of cornhole and the captain of Mid-East team, which was about to start play in an untelevised tournament featuring cornhole’s elite​​​​, the first major contest of the ACL World Championships.  

The first problem he had to overcome were the league-provided jerseys. They came in an assortment of sizes. Nobody on his 16-person team wanted the XXL, and too many of them wanted the larges. Henderson eventually sorted the shirt issue. But more important, the team was missing one of its star players, a 40-year-old woman named Stacia Pugh, who wasn’t answering texts.

Luckily, Henderson, 28, is used to dealing with logistical issues. In his day job, he runs a warehouse in Athens, Ohio, for a company that delivers convenience-store items to college students. He started playing cornhole when he was 16, traveling to compete in tournaments near his home. He got slaughtered at first, so he’d practice hours a day until he started winning. Sometimes he’d walk away with $500 for a first-place finish.

Nowadays he practices 20 hours a week and dreams about quitting the warehouse job to become a full-time cornhole player. He said that people ask him all the time how much he makes. The league claims that some have made up to $60,000. “There’s no way,” Henderson said. “There’s no way that’s possible.” Last year, a good year for Henderson, he made about $20,000 in winnings, but he said that most, if not all, of that money went to travel expenses to get to events. 

Pugh, the missing member of Henderson’s team, is among the few who have become full-time pros. She got into the game ten years ago when she started playing her dad, who would trash-talk while constantly besting her. She responded by buying her own boards and bags and practicing until she consistently beat him. In November 2018, Pugh quit her job as a real estate developer in Cleveland. As of August, she’d won more than $10,000 playing cornhole and in sponsorships, and she hoped to double that by year’s end.

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Adam Hissner and Cody Henderson compete during a live ESPN broadcast. (Photo: Eric Barton)

The ACL estimates that fewer than 250 players are considered pros—those who have made money at a tournament. Women make up about 15 percent of that number, according to the league, and the best of them stand to make more money than the men. That’s because they can play in both women-only ACL contests and also in main events open to anyone. 

Pugh shrugged off questions when she showed up about 15 minutes after play was supposed to begin. Henderson switched from frantically running around the casino basement to getting ready for the game. 

Henderson and Pugh and the rest of their team took their spots among a mass of cornhole boards lined up in the cavernous, windowless space. The boards are made from a thin plank of pine or birch, and the landing bags created a cacophony, like a hundred off-beat snare drums.

I wandered behind the rows of courts, trying to understand it all. Unlike the broadcasts, which are chopped down to just the finals and juiced up with music and announcers, the beginning of bracket play is difficult for a spectator. The players get text messages from the organizers announcing when and where they’re playing, meaning it’s not possible for me to know what’s coming up next. The score is kept with golf tees stuck into wooden podiums, with numbers so small that it’s nearly impossible for a spectator to keep track. Also, the results are kept by scorekeepers who don’t announce them. At the end of one tournament, I watched as players simply stopped in the middle of games, knowing that one team had achieved enough points to claim the trophy; I’m still not sure how.  

A replay is only accessible on the ACL website or for subscribers of the ESPN app, and even then, only the parts of the tournament that get broadcast are available.

Perhaps more challenging for the league’s hopes of making cornhole an Olympic sport, watched by millions, is the fact that tournaments are exceedingly long. The world championships in August lasted up to 14 hours a day over six days. The all-star-style tournament I watched lasted five hours—far longer than my cornhole attention span. 

When I mentioned this to Moore’s staff, they said that the night’s World Cup would be better, thanks to a simpler scoring method. It would be, they promised, a true spectator sport.

Earlier this year, cornhole had a bit of a moment. Following a Fourth of July tournament in Connecticut, ESPN posted a one-minute clip on its Twitter feed that showed Daymon Dennis making what might just be the Immaculate Reception of cornhole. Thrown high and arching, Dennis’s airmail shot knocked his opponent’s bag off the board before dropping into the hole, good for three points. In all the hours I watched cornhole at the championship, I didn’t see a shot like this repeated. By last count, the clip had been viewed 25 million times, according to Dennis.

Dennis said he gets recognized while traveling now, and he can’t go anywhere in his hometown of Brownsville, Kentucky, without someone at least giving him a knowing look. Not that it has amounted to much. “If anybody’s going to be broke and famous,” his wife told him, “it’s you.” 

I previously associated cornhole with frat parties and hipster bars in Asheville, North Carolina, where I first played the game maybe a decade ago, but those two crowds are a minority among the pros. Many players at the tournament come from the Midwest and the South, with day jobs as contractors or electricians—people who work with their hands. They’re often people with disposable income, in part because they have to pay their way to tournaments. It’s a welcoming group, with few displaying the kind of cold competitiveness I’ve seen at mountain-biking or paddleboarding races.

While it would be easy to question the athleticism required of cornhole, it is surprising to watch how much the players throw—hundreds if not thousands of times a day at the championship. “People usually think I’m joking when I say this, but players do get sore,” said Ryder, the color commentator.  

Even if cornhole does require a certain level of athleticism, it doesn’t demand sobriety. Henderson, while competing in two big tournaments a day, drank cans of Busch Light wrapped in a koozie. On Pugh’s official ACL bio, it lists her favorite drink while competing: Barefoot cabernet sauvignon. When asked about it, she said at least one glass is necessary before play begins. “It just helps with the nerves,” she said. 

Moore said that casual approach to the game keeps things fun and is something he’s not willing to change. Even if it meant that later that night he might be pulling his players away from the bar.


Minutes before the ESPN broadcast began, Moore stood in the center of a landing that overlooked the lighted area where the games were to be played. He snaked his way between speakers and cables and tables holding monitors and soundboards. Ryder was nearby under bright lights. Moore bounced from one foot to the other. “Yeah, I’m nervous,” he said. “Do I look nervous?”

I took a seat at one end of the auditorium. The place filled to standing room only. Aside from a few family and friends, the crowd of maybe 200 was mostly players competing in the other events. “Make some noise!” the DJ urged them regularly, and they obliged. Many held signs that read “for hims 4 bagger,” a reference to a player sinking all four beanbags, provided by an ACL sponsor, Hims, which sells discount erectile-dysfunction drugs.

The World Cup had begun the day before, with 25 international players representing three countries—Australia, Canada, and the U.S. Every time cornhole gets a national broadcast, Moore said, he sees an uptick in interest. At this point, Moore said, his work is an investment into what pro cornhole could become. “I’m definitely not making a lot of money,” Moore said. “People say I’m the Roger Goodell of cornhole, but all of our league, all of the prize money, all of our expenses, all of what I’m making from it, doesn’t equal NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s salary.” (Goodell's next contract will reportedly pay him up to $40 million a year.)

As attention for cornhole increases, so will the prize money, Moore said. The 2019 ACL World Championship made $249,000 in payouts, divided among about a hundred players, according to the league, thanks in part to money that amateur players pay to enter tournaments. The World Cup promised a payout of $25,000 split between the two teams in the finals.

As the World Cup broadcast got started, Henderson and his partner, Adam Hissner, edged out a victory against the other top-ranked U.S. team. Next, a Canadian team beat a contingent from Australia, pitting the Canadians against Henderson and Hissner in the finals.

While it had been my intention to track the final and provide a riveting dispatch, I must confess: I had little idea of what was happening. Even with a front-row seat, it was often impossible to see where bags landed. The referee, standing at a podium to the side of the arena, had to confirm the point totals with the players. The only commentator broadcast in the arena came from the DJ, whose main job, it seemed, was to hype the crowd for wide-angle shots. That left spectators unsure of what was going on, with reactions to even the final shots happening a few seconds after the conclusion of the matches.

From what I could tell, Henderson and Hissner won nearly every round in the finals, slaughtering the Canadians by nine points. It was just after 9 P.M. when it ended, and Hissner, now a world champion, had been playing while holding a thermos of beer since at least 2 P.M. (although I never saw him refill it). 

Henderson, as everyone expected, walked away from the entire event among the top players, bringing home $8,000 in prize money.

The ACL claimed that more than 200,000 viewers saw the championship event on the Ocho, which league officials said beat out Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball games broadcast at the same times. The broadcast’s viewership, according to also league officials, was 80 percent men, and at least 40 percent of the audience was in the 25-to-34 age bracket. 

The next day I caught Moore during some downtime in the casino’s basement. He looked exhausted. “It’s going,” he said with a laugh, when I asked how things were looking. His problem at that moment was trying to figure out why ESPN had broadcast the rest of the world-championship event on its online-only ESPN3. “We get good ratings, people are into it, I just don’t get it,” he said. 

We talked briefly about the Olympics. He knows he needs to increase the number of international teams if he’s going to make a legitimate attempt at claiming that cornhole is played widely enough to justify a bid. He’s pinning his hopes on American soldiers, who he’s heard often pull out cornhole boards at bases in Germany and the Middle East. Perhaps the locals will catch on and spread it organically.

I mentioned my problems following the play, especially the lack of a commentator explaining the score, and I admitted sheepishly that it was impossible to keep a cornhole attention span for tournaments that last hours. “Yeah,” he said with genuine interest, “we know that’s something we need to work on if we’re going to start getting spectators.”

The next night, the broadcast shifted to crew play, meaning four-person teams. The finals lasted almost two hours, and I excused myself before the last game. While a good shot was initially a spectacle, its entertainment value had worn off.

Before heading to the airport the following day, I took a walk in downtown Philadelphia and found a pair of cornhole boards set up in John F. Kennedy Plaza. “Cornhole!” a kid yelled, sprinting toward them, and he and his brother started tossing bags. But they quickly lost interest in the game and threw the bags at each other instead. Their mother eventually intervened, giving me the chance to play. 

It was my first time in years. Attempting to mimic the throwing motion used by most pros—arm dipped behind my back to set up an underhand throw, wrist flicked at the last second, bag arcing gently—I landed two bags on the board and sank another, a good round. I looked around the crowded park, but nobody was watching. 

Filed To: Outside FeaturesEventsSportsTV
Lead Illustration: Calum Heath
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