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A hole new era: Las Vegas welcomes its pro cornhole team

Updated May 17, 2024 - 9:29 am

The T-shirt cannon didn’t work.

It likely didn’t matter, as the fans were as excited as they were going to get.

Also, the arena was only five rows deep. Somebody could’ve gotten hurt.

Under the bright lights of the CBS Sports Network, which carried the event live, the Vegas High Rollers played their inaugural match in their home city Thursday night, taking on the Texas Bully Baggers and ushering in the era of professional team cornhole in Las Vegas.

After trailing the Bully Baggers three games to one as part of the American Cornhole League’s Cornhole Mania 2, the High Rollers staged a furious comeback to force a decisive Game 7. Victory, however, wasn’t in the cards — or the bags — for the home team.

The Cornhole Mania 2 festivities continue through Sunday in The Expo at World Market Center. (For schedule and ticket information, see iplaycornhole.com.) Additional coverage will be spread across ESPN’s various networks as part of the more than 300 hours of ACL cornhole programming it will air this year.

Bright spot during pandemic

The ACL, which bills itself as “the worldwide governing body for professional, competitive and recreational cornhole,” has its roots in Las Vegas.

Stacey Moore, the league’s founder and commissioner, put one of his previous ventures, the American Tailgating League, on the national stage by hosting MegaGate here in 2011. In doing so, he noticed that attendees “just played cornhole way more seriously than the other tailgate games.”

After a couple of years, Moore decided his best long-term opportunity would be “to evolve cornhole from a tailgating game into a legitimate professional sport.” In 2015, the American Cornhole League was born.

Back then, did anyone tell him, “Stacey, that’s a great, can’t-miss idea”?

“Absolutely zero people said that,” Moore conceded.

“When we got on ESPN2 in 2017 and it went viral,” he said, “and then ESPN immediately signed us to a two-year deal, I think that’s when a lot of my family and friends, doubters, said, ‘Huh. Maybe there is something to this.’ ”

Much like “Tiger King” and hydroxychloroquine, professional cornhole burst onto the scene during the pandemic and captured the imaginations of people who couldn’t have cared less during normal times.

On May 9, 2020, an ACL event became the pandemic’s first live, televised American sporting event when it aired on ESPN — not “The Ocho,” mind you, but ESPN proper. It beat UFC 249 to the proverbial punch by more than six hours.

“We had already been on ESPN for two or three years by the time the pandemic hit, so we had reached a pretty good level of awareness just from that,” Moore said. “But when the pandemic hit, and we were able to get four-hour windows on ESPN … we didn’t have all this other noise in the sporting world going on around us.”

Add in cornhole’s built-in social distancing — its boards are placed 27 feet apart — and the pandemic became the perfect storm for growing the game.

Rise of cornhole

Moore’s database contains more than 400,000 players who’ve participated in ACL events, and he expects 500 to 600 players to compete this weekend.

Last year, the ACL handed out “close to $5 million” in prize money, he said. Top pros on the ACL tour earn between $50,000 and $100,000, and sponsorships can double that. It’s a nice living for performing something your uncle can do pretty well while he nurses a beer and a cigarette and tends to the grill.

For about 20 percent of professionals, cornhole is their full-time occupation.

“We still have a long way to go to improve that,” Moore said. “That’s one of our big goals. We’d love to get to a point where all of our professional players are able to play full time.”

Hunter Thorne of the High Rollers is among that lucky 20 percent.

The Moorpark, California, native has been playing cornhole for eight years, five of those as a professional. Thorne has earned as much as $10,000 from a single tournament. He’s 21, and cornhole is the only job he’s ever had.

It could be the only job he ever has.

“There’s 13-year-olds in the Top 10, and there’s players who are over 65 in the top 10,” he said. “So, really, any age can play and win.”

Thorne practices two to three hours a day leading up to tournaments, where he can toss bags anywhere from eight to 12 hours in a given day. He often wears earbuds or headphones during competitions — Lil Wayne, Chris Brown and DaBaby are a must — just to drown out the noise.

“It’s physically taxing,” Thorne said of tournaments. “You wouldn’t think it is, but you end up being tired at the end of the day.”

Cornhole in the Olympics?

The team concept is relatively new for the ACL — even more so to Las Vegas.

The High Rollers are in their second season, and the team has launched minor league affiliates in Reno, Portland and Rainier, Washington.

“We picked Vegas,” Moore says, “because it’s an amazing sports destination.”

The economics don’t yet make it feasible to have traditional home and away schedules — the team matches are televised from various tour stops — but the goal is to have the High Rollers compete here on a regular basis.

This year, the ACL is using SuperHole, its annual celebrity tournament, to lean into a local sports rivalry. On Saturday, Raiders punter AJ Cole and a professional partner will take on Broncos offensive lineman Quinn Meinerz and his partner, while Raiders running back Alexander Mattison and a pro will challenge Broncos linebacker Alex Singleton and his partner. A spot in SuperHole V, for which former Raider Derek Carr already has qualified, will be on the line when the event airs live at 10 p.m. on ESPN.

As another sign of cornhole’s growth, the ACL is hosting more than 20 international events this season, including inaugural tournaments in Australia, France, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Slovenia and Slovakia. It’s all part of the plan to have cornhole recognized as an Olympic sport in time for the 2032 Games in Brisbane.

You can even wager on cornhole through DraftKings, the ACL’s official sports betting partner.

“DraftKings won’t disclose the handle to us,” Moore said. “They just say that they’re happy.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on X.

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