Sports

‘BagGate’ is the professional cornhole drama taking over the sport

The world of cornhole is being torn apart by bag-related drama — and the bag-throwing world is dealing with the fallout. Now there are questions about potential impropriety, doctored bags, loose stitches, replaced fillings, and the entire competitive cornhole process. Let’s rewind and explained what went down, and how this might be a symptom of a sport growing faster than it’s willing to handle.

Fans tuned in to watch a high stakes match in the Doubles B Bracket at the 2022 American Cornhole League (ACL) World Championships. It was a big deal, with two of the highest ranked teams in the world featured prominently on the ACL livestream. Then, before the first bag was thrown, the drama began. Devon Harbaugh, part of the No. 6 ranked team, called for a bag check on his opponents, No. 1 ranked Mark Richards and Philip Lopez Jr. He wanted to ensure their bags were legal before the critical match began. A measuring tool was brought out, bags were checked, and they failed inspection.

Then, in the ultimate case of “turnabout is fair play,” Richards and Lopez Jr. asked for a bag check on Harbaugh and his partner Derrick King in return. Their bags failed inspection too. It didn’t derail the event, as both teams decided to play on despite their bags failing inspection — so it wasn’t as if one team had an advantage over the other, but it was enough to spark huge debates on the “Addicted to Cornhole” Facebook group, one of the largest communities for players.

“Simply put ALL bags should be inspected during registration for all Major ACL events, period,” a commenter said. “Most of the bags these players throw are not going to pass inspection probably if they checked every bag!” added another, and inside of the rule discussion and proposed solutions there was another undercurrent: Claims that bag manufacturing had become a cash grab at the expense of the sport.

What has cornhole evolved into?

If you’ve only played in casual tailgate games or at your local bar you’d be astonished to find out how exact specifications are for competitive bags. In addition to very specific size and weight requirements, the ACL and American Cornhole Organization (ACO), who are the two premier competitive bodies, have one major difference outside of the weight and size tolerances, and this comes from what fills the bags.

  • ACL bag filling: Inside Material may be anything that does not damage or create residue on the board. A bag that damages a board in any way as caused by the material of the bag will automatically forfeit the player throwing that particular bag. If a bag is found to gradually leave a residue or marks on the board during gameplay, that player or team will forfeit the match. .
  • ACO bag filling: Each bag is filled with plastic resin/beads which will not breakdown

Originally bags would be filled with corn, hence the name of the sport — but we’re past that now. Resin has become the favored filling, as the pellets inside the bag, along with the fabric, have a tendency to “break in,” making them less stiff with each use, allowing high-level players to better tailor their feel of the bag to their style — specifically its ability to slide on the board, feel looser, block better, or have “hole friendliness,” which is the movement of material inside the bag to allow it to transfer weight and fall through more easily.

A bag maker explains …

So, what is an illegal cornhole bag? What is a legal one? And what advantages could a person gain from trying to bend the rules? I talked to Tom, bag manufacturer and owner of “So ILL Cornhole,” about “BagGate,” and how the sport needs to adjust moving forward.

A big question surrounding bag manipulation stems from how bags are broken in. The easiest, and most obvious way is to have a player simply play the game more — but Tom has heard stories of some truly remarkable ways people have tried to manipulate their cornhole bags. “Players also have been known to put the bags in the washer and dryer and even boil their bags to break them in,” Tom says. “But please, anyone reading this, do not boil your bags. You will likely ruin them in ways you cannot see.”

He adds that technology has led to bag manufacturers coming up with legal ways to offer players different speed, and slide characteristics without forcing them to manipulate bags themselves — including fabric treatments. There are rules in the sport against foreign substances and doctoring bags, but so long as they meet the measurement and weight requirements, nothing is being done.

Beyond break in is a far more nefarious process of chemically adjusting the outside of the bag itself. It’s not uncommon to hear of players using fabric softeners on their bags, or even other chemical treatments. Tom explains this is to reduce the stiffness and or change the coefficient of friction in the bags to make them faster or slower, all of which can offer a competitive edge, but that nobody is really checking for these modifications. “If we hold true to the regulations, these are likely not allowed,” he says, “but how would anyone ever know without witnessing the process happen?”

It’s Tom’s belief that neither of the teams involved in “BagGate” at the ACL World Championships manipulated the bags themselves, but were rather a product of manufacturing issues — which he believes presents a far greater problem. With money flooding in, and dozens or bagmakers paying leagues to get coveted “approved by” stamps on their bags, it’s opened up room for shoddy compliance issues, and there’s no much motivation from leagues to demand more out of the companies paying them.

“The money coming in from manufacturers for licensing the stamp is substantial, so why rock the boat by implementing additional compliance measures which make manufacturing bags under your stamp a more rigorous endeavor?”

This is great if you’re a sports league looking to make money, but terrible for players wanting to ensure there’s an even playing field — even if players are unaware they’re using illegal bags in an event. This is a process that ACL got rolling when they began the stamp process, which was implemented under the guise of conveying player confidence in bag manufacturing, but hasn’t really held to that ideal. Companies could seek either basic ACL stamps, ACL “comp” stamps, or the highest level ACL “pro.”

“Higher tiers required a larger license fee, but only Pro tier bags are allowed to be utilized in televised matches. Thus, there was a massive marketing incentive for manufacturers to get their bags stamped due to the collective community associating a stamped bag with higher quality.”

Incidents like “BagGate” prove that these stamps often don’t mean the exacting standards they’re marketed with.

“It’s an easy fix,” Tom quips, “At the beginning of a tournament each player/team can check in a certain number of sets for inspection.” He thinks players should be able to keep their freedom to pick whichever manufacturer or bag set feels right to them, but confirming legality shouldn’t wait until midway through a tournament. “Such a check could be conducted either during registration or prior to a player’s first match without adding much time to the process.”

As it stands: Nothing is being done. In the 10 days since “BagGate” there’s been no official change to the rules, or streamlining of the process — even in the case of a prestigious, televised event like the World Championships. To most sports fans cornhole is a funny thing to watch as part of ESPN 8: The Ocho, but to those who follow and love the sport, doing their best to get more people to buy into competitive play, it’s a major issue without a current solution — and one that no governing body seems to care enough about to fix.

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