Sport

Cornhole (yes, cornhole) is going pro.

Born in Europe — or maybe China — this simple game took hold in the American Midwest. Now, it’s aiming for the Olympics.

In the past 16 years, cornhole has spread quickly out of the American Midwest, catching on across the United States and beyond. It has spawned no fewer than three official organizations competing to serve the growing U.S. market: The American Cornhole Association (ACA), the American Cornhole Organization (ACO) and the American Cornhole League (ACL).

In 2016, the sport took a giant leap forward in terms of visibility when ESPN3 televised the ACL Championship of Bags in Cherokee, North Carolina. In July 2017, the ACL moved up to ESPN2, in a July 4 event. This August, the sport will return to ESPN2 for a daylong broadcast of the faux channel “ESPN8 The Ocho,” in a lineup that also includes dodgeball, ping pong, and chessboxing.

The ACL is setting its sights outside of America, too, which introduces a whole new set of challenges.

“We recently expanded into Germany and found out that the boards they’ve been using are a foot shorter than regulation boards in the U.S.,” says Trey Ryder, the organization’s media director. “We asked them, how did you get the specs on these boards? Well, it turns out a player had come to the U.S. and saw a tournament that was using plastic lawn game boards. He thought that was the official size, and he modeled his after those boards.

“So now we’re trying to get Germany back to the correct equipment size,” Ryder says with a sigh. Such are the headaches of recreational cultural hegemony.

“Our ultimate goal,” Ryder says, “is to make cornhole an Olympic sport.”

Ryder says the ACL now organizes hundreds of tournaments around the country. The bulk of these events are small gatherings, like the Moose Lodge tourney. If players are registered with the ACL, they can earn points toward qualifying for the larger regional and national competitions. An in-house tech platform keeps track of rankings and statistics. In March, around 750 players traveled to compete in the national tournament in St. Louis.

Ryder says the league has about 120 pro-level players. Is there enough money in the ecosystem yet for them to make a full-time living?

“We’re not there yet, but we’re close,” Ryder says. “Our top-level players right now, across an entire season, are taking in about $20,000 a year.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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