Tossing One Back
While cornhole is generally thought of as a beanbag tossing game played at family gatherings or tailgate parties, it's becoming more competitive, more organized, and potentially more lucrative.
Most people think cornhole is just a fun beanbag tossing game played at family gatherings or possibly tailgate parties, but its popularity has been growing quite significantly over the past few years to where it’s become a competitive sport.
Now, one can find cornhole games in Tulsa at least once a week, courtesy of a group called Tulsa Cornhole, and there are even organized national competitions that are occasionally shown on various television programs including ESPN.
There are plenty of opportunities for Tulsans to have fun playing the game and meeting new people. And if someone has aspirations of competing on a state and national level, that path could be open as well.
“It’s a very competitive sport now. It’s grown, and everybody can play it,” says Johnathon Shepherd, a local competitive cornhole player who has also participated in national championship tournaments. “That’s what the big draw is. It’s not a sport that takes a huge amount of skill, to be able to throw a bag. Now, it does take some skill to be very consistent at it, but it’s like any other sport — muscle memory comes into play, and you can draw everyone in. Any time we have a family gathering, grandma is out there playing cornhole with us. Everyone can play, including kids, and everyone can have fun with it.”
Tulsa Cornhole meets every Tuesday night from April to October outside at the FlyingTee in Jenks (on the Riverwalk next to Andolini’s), as well as holding a few other special tournaments on selected Saturdays. It’s usually $10 to enter, although the first Tuesday of every month, military veterans and first responders can play for half-price. During the winter months, the festivities move indoors, but the game remains the same.
“In the wintertime last year, we went to the Tulsa VFW downtown, so we played inside there,” says Jason Strickland of Tulsa Cornhole. “This year, we have a couple of possible other options we could go to, or we may go back to the VFW. That’s kind of still up in the air. We do every single Tuesday night somewhere in Tulsa unless it’s Christmas or something like that.
“We also do three Saturdays a year and the Fourth of July. We do spring, summer, and fall 64-team tournaments. FlyingTee guarantees a $1,000 payout. As we get entries, we raise the payout. If it were to fill up with 64 [two-person] teams, we would pay out with $2,400 in cash. Also, this year we’ve done Rooster Days, Shamrock the Rose in Broken Arrow, so we’re getting a lot more festivals and carnivals. We will go just about anywhere in Tulsa. We also do private events or corporate events. We did one recently for Williams Corporation at the POSTOAK Lodge, just for 60 of their employees. We also rent our equipment out if someone wants to do their tournament at a family reunion or wedding.”
Tulsa Cornhole sometimes even makes new cornhole boards for special events, such as their American Heart Association fundraiser tournament, when Strickland secured corporate sponsorships and had individual cornhole boards customized with each sponsor’s logo on it, which were later given to the sponsor to keep.
For those special Saturday tournaments, which run longer than the more casual Tuesday nights, it is $50 per two-person team to enter.
“Our normal setup is a two-person team. It’s a double-elimination tournament,” Strickland says. “We want everyone to get to play at least three or four games, instead of paying $50 to play one game and go home. We have a coin toss to start the game to decide where everyone is going to stand, and who gets to throw first — you alternate throwing. You and your partner are across from each other, on the same side of the board but standing facing each other. So you would throw a bag, the opponent you’re playing against will throw, back and forth. Once all the bags are thrown, you add up the score. In the hole is three points, on the board is one point, and they cancel each other out. If you threw three bags in the hole, which would account for nine points and I only threw one, that’s three, so you would get six, and I would get nothing. You play to 21, but you can go over 21.”
As for more intense levels of competition, Shepherd offers a glimpse.
“The professional side of it, what’s on ESPN is the ACO, the American Cornhole Organization, and then the other one that you see is the ACL, the American Cornhole League, and that’s the one where you see the college players playing in the college cornhole championship and traveling the country,” says Shepherd, who spent two or three years traveling around to ACO tournaments in places like Ohio, Texas and Missouri. “It’s like any other professional sport; you got to put some time and effort into it. I went because I enjoy playing and I like being around really competitive players, even if I went up there and got my tail kicked most of the time.”
Besides the national cornhole circuits, there’s also a more local one in Oklahoma.
“There’s a statewide league called the Oklahoma Cornhole Association,” Strickland says. “Tulsa is a region underneath that league, so we’re also involved with Oklahoma City, Lawton, Enid, Ada, and Midwest City.”
For those who think they’re pretty good in the backyard and want to try the national stage, come try it out. But Shepherd warns that the official standards that Tulsa Cornhole adopts, which are the same guidelines set down by the ACO, can change things significantly.
“The consistency of the bags and the boards makes a huge difference,” says Shepherd, a former U.S. Marine who runs the Eagle Ops Foundation, which helps military veterans. “If you have the typical backyard board, those boards are going to bounce considerably different from one with three-quarter-inch hard plywood, with a support board in the middle. They’re not going to bounce at all. And the difference between a cornhole bag versus a polymer bag, the bounce on those is different, or no bounce. A standard cornhole bag that you can buy off Amazon, for example, for pretty cheap would be filled with, no kidding, actual corn, so it eventually pulverizes it into corn flour. You take a 16-ounce bag, and you throw it a few hundred times, it turns into a 12-ounce bag of flour.
“On the professional side, they changed it. It’s the same sized 6-by-6 bag with polymer, which is plastic, small BBs, and that allows a much more consistent bag, so it doesn’t bounce, or it slides very consistently. The other thing on the pro bags is, one side is what we call a slick side, the other side is a stick side. Depending on how you throw, you can run it, or you could stick it. You got a lot of guys who can throw a slick-side bag and run it into the hole, just like bowling, but you got other guys that can block [with the stick side] and then throw air-mails, which is directly into the hole.
“The other side of it, too, is in backyard cornhole, you can play at any distance. In professional, as well as our tournament and league play, we play at 27 feet. In the backyard, you may play at 15 or 20 feet, and that makes a considerable difference.”
While the local cornhole scene in Tulsa is gradually increasing in popularity, Strickland, a U.S. Air Force veteran, points out he is not ready to quit his day job as a crane operator for 3S Services at the Holly Refinery in west Tulsa.
“It’s growing. I don’t know that I’d say it’s thriving,” he laughs, referring to Tulsa Cornhole’s business. “I still got my normal job. I may put more hours into this than I do that, but it doesn’t pay as well. But I see the gold pot at the end of the rainbow. It’s growing, and it’s getting there. It’s just a matter of putting the work in.”
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