Back in ‘thwack’-tion: Cornhole thrills

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“Thwack” is one of the most common sounds in sports. Whether it comes from contact in baseball, a spike in volleyball or a sack in football, the thwack can symbolize an imminent change in the outcome of a game.

Swift change is what makes sports so exciting. What happens after the thwack is uncertain — the prospect of an impending momentum shift is what keeps fans rooting for their team even at the bleakest of moments.

In many ways, this kind of excitement has been missing from U.S. sports since COVID-19 pushed most leagues out of regular function. While some live sports have returned to national television, such as NASCAR, most recently, these sports lack the excitement that comes from a thwack.

To be fair, sports with such loud contact are not well fit for social distancing guidelines, as they usually also involve other forms of contact besides the thwack, and the return of thwacking enthusiasm for sports appeared to be on hold until further notice. That is, until cornhole stole the show.

Yes, cornhole. You’ve seen it set up at tailgates, school events and maybe even your grandparents’ house. But you’ve never seen cornhole like this.

On May 9, ESPN and ESPN2 began televising the American Cornhole League’s, or ACL’s, Cornhole Mania 2020, a series of pro invitational qualifiers. Due to the pandemic, the league has been hosting competitions virtually, allowing more than 60,000 registered players to compete from home.

But the first event of Cornhole Mania itself, in Rock Hill, South Carolina, was not virtual. Announcers practiced social distancing during the matches, while players wore face masks and stepped onto the throwing platform one at a time. On May 9, 48 players (or 24 teams) entered the competition, but only one team emerged victorious.

In many ways, cornhole was built for this kind of social distancing. After all, the boards at which players throw are placed 27 feet apart. But it was built for the spotlight too, the thrill of a national stage with thousands watching from their couches.

This is because of cornhole’s thwack. For those who don’t know how cornhole is played, each thrower lobs a weighted bag toward a slanted board with a hole in the center of the far end. One point is awarded for a bag that lands and stays on the board, also known as an ace, while 3 points are awarded for a bag that falls in the hole — a play colloquially known as “air mail” when the bag flies straight in.

The catch is that each player’s points cancel out their opponent’s, which means every thwack via an ace or an air mail can be a game changer.

While the ACL began its contract with ESPN in 2016, the league never could have predicted its self-importance as a national sport until this time of crisis. The ACL renewed a multiyear deal with the sports media giant in January, but it wasn’t until May 6 that ESPN announced cornhole’s return to live competition.

Cornhole’s significance extends beyond the ACL’s recent live events. For many sports fans who crave competition, as friendly or fiery as they like, cornhole is an outlet of relief during quarantine.

As it requires little equipment, which can be built at home, cornhole is a largely accessible sport for quelling the desire for competition as well. And personally, as someone who thrives in fun, competitive sports environments, cornhole has been a saving grace, as thwacks have been at a premium in recent months.

Cornhole requires little athletic ability, and the rules are plain as day. In other words, anyone can pick up on the sport. And judging by SportsCenter’s Instagram, which recently featured a small child tossing four straight bags into the hole, many Americans are picking up cornhole.

And why shouldn’t they? The thwacking thrill of live competition is just two boards and eight bags away.

Ethan Waters covers baseball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @ewate1.