Professional cornhole has turned a tailgating game into a hit TV sport – and it's expanding globally

  • The American Cornhole League is trying to gain legitimacy for the sport as it grows its viewership on ESPN and expands internationally.
  • Cody Henderson is the number one ranked player in the ACL, taking home about $20,000 to $25,000 in prize money last year.
Ankit Mittal, of Ellicott City, Md., tosses a bean bag as his friend Shean Flynn, of Newport News, Va., waves his Terrible Towel as the two were playing Corn Hole while enjoying tailgating before the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
Ricky Carioti | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Ankit Mittal, of Ellicott City, Md., tosses a bean bag as his friend Shean Flynn, of Newport News, Va., waves his Terrible Towel as the two were playing Corn Hole while enjoying tailgating before the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.

Every day after he leaves his job as a warehouse general manager, Cody Henderson runs up to three miles. Then, he sets up cornhole boards and practices throwing beanbags for a couple hours, focusing on timing, balance and precision.

"It helps a lot with the endurance and mental game," Henderson, 27, told CNBC. "If you can sit there and not get bored in a quiet area for two or three hours, you are really going to set yourself up to succeed on the pro level."

Succeed he has. Henderson, who lives in Jackson, Ohio, is the top-ranked player out of the 20,000 pros in the American Cornhole League (ACL). He says he earned between $20,000 and $25,000 in prize money last year. He's peaking just as the sport is surging in popularity.

While cornhole is generally thought of as a beanbag tossing game played at family gatherings or tailgate parties, it's gotten so big that players like Henderson are making their way to ESPN. During last year's The Ocho, a one-day event for alternative sports on ESPN 2, the Championship of Bags was the most viewed competition.

In the 18 to 49 age group, more peopled watched cornhole on that day than the competing game coverage of Major League Baseball, the WNBA or the final stage of the Tour de France, according to Sports Media Watch.

For Henderson, cornhole requires 20 hours a week of training and tournaments on weekends. Still, he said most people don't take him seriously when he says he plays professionally.

"They'll say, 'Oh yeah really?' and just change the subject," he said. "When people were seeing me on ESPN, everyone's attitude changed."

Cody Henderson, the number one ranked player in the American Cornhole League.
Source: American Cornhole League
Cody Henderson, the number one ranked player in the American Cornhole League.

He's not just seeing himself on national TV but also all over social media. This year's American Cornhole League Pro Invitational on July 4, was viewed by 500,000 people, the most ever for the sport. Its shot of the year was viewed more than 1.2 million times online within eight hours after it was promoted by Barstool Sports, the league said.

"Social media, Twitter tends to blow up every time we're on ESPN," said Stacey Moore, ACL's commissioner. "People say, 'I tuned into this as a joke, but I can't turn away."

Moore, whose been playing socially for eight years, mostly at North Carolina State football games, initially enjoyed the game as a fun pastime. After noticing how serious players were and that they were playing for money, he decided to start the ACL three years ago.

"There was a lot more strategy to it than I originally thought," Moore said.

Henderson credits the five years he spent bowling as a kid with the skill he's developed throwing the beanbag. Then there's the endurance he picked up as a track runner in high school.

"When a tournament is 12 hours long outside in the 100-degree heat, it takes a lot of endurance," Henderson said. "When I get to tournaments like that and you're walking back and forth all day long, if you keep a tracker on you you're probably walking 10 miles."

Like Henderson, the ACL has big ambitions. The league signed a three-year contract with ESPN to air its events and has brought on sponsors like sausage company Johnsonville, grill manufacturer Nexgrill, cornhole equipment maker All Cornhole and financial services company Raging Bull.

Last year, the ACL paid out $250,000 in prize money. This year, the minimum awards are set at that level, and Moore hopes to soon reach $1 million in guaranteed prizes. It's also expanding globally, with divisions in Canada, Australia, Ireland, Germany, Sweden and Austria among the initial targeted areas. Its first international competition is in July, and Moore has designs on turning it into an Olympic sport.

"I've been pleased with our results, that's for sure," Moore said. "I figured if we put together a compelling broadcast and showed the sports and displayed the strategy on television, once people started watching it they would keep watching it."

Henderson hopes that cornhole will some day be his full-time job and that he'll be able to win the respect of spectators everywhere. On that front, he still has work to do among the people that know him best.

"My dad, he's just a constant skeptic," Henderson said. "He's an awesome guy, but I don't think there is anything I can do to convince him that this isn't a joke, that this isn't just a game and that I'm not wasting time with my life."