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Cornhole! How Philly’s booming beanbag league got its start, and why it’s so popular

Andy Banas was mapping out investments and finances for some of the richest families in the Philadelphia region just a few years ago. But he doesn’t have that cushy job anymore. He’s put all his professional energies into one investment: Corn… hole.

Yes, Banas spends many of his evenings and weekends enjoying beers with his best friends and throwing bean bags into holes. Sound like the life? It kind of is.

Banas and his business partner Chad Puchalski run the Philadelphia Cornhole League, an organized group of people from Philly who want to spend their time playing the picnic and tailgating activity (sport?) on a regular basis. Over the last two years, Banas and Puchalski have reached more than 1,000 players in Philadelphia alone.

“It really started as a hobby for us,” Banas said earlier this week before members of the League gathered at The Piazza in Northern Liberties for their Tuesday night toss. “We met playing in a small league, and we basically just decided that we could do this better.”

So Banas and Puchalski, piggybacking the business off of their screen-printing company Independence Print Co., started the Philadelphia Cornhole League. They came to realize that nearly every major city on the east coast (New York, Boston, D.C.) had an organized cornhole league — Philly didn’t. So the two of them created one, and added different divisions (recreational, intermediate and competitive) so that people really good at aiming bean bags weren’t crushing others with no coordination.

But even more than that, they focused their efforts on building a community, even a group of friends, of people who meet once a week just to catch up, guzzle some drinks and play a sport once considered silly. Within six months after launching their idea into a league, it had become a legitimate business with bar partnerships. Now they have sponsorships from the likes of Fireball and Dos Equis.

The origins of cornhole are hard to trace. Some people say it began in the foothills of Kentucky during the days of the pioneers. Others claim it can be traced back to ancient civilizations when people would cut holes in wood and then throw rocks in them. And some still say that it began in Cincinnati like 15 years ago.

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Anna Orso/Billy Penn

Whatever the case, cornhole has exploded in popularity over the last several years, becoming an immensely popular game, especially at events like tailgates and outdoor get-togethers. When played at the Philadelphia Cornhole League, it works like this:

Members of each league — there are several locations that meet in four different “seasons” throughout the year — show up on their assigned weeknight to their assigned location, whether it’s the Piazza, Xfinity Live!, Urban Saloon in Fairmount, or elsewhere.

Teams of two people go against a second team, and players stand on the opposite side of their partner. Players take turns taking shots by throwing the bean bags at the boards with a hole in it. Points are awarded based on a system of where the bean bag lands (more points for sinking the bag right in, less for sliding it in). Teams play a game, and the first team to 21 points wins. Then they play best two games out of three.

The teams are created in one of two ways: Recreational and intermediate teams are formed however people want. When participants register for a seven-week league (costing $80 a team), they pick their partners. But the competitive league is totally different.

For them, each night there’s a cash prize on the line. And instead of having all-time partners, they’re out for themselves and are with a different partner each night when numbers are drawn from a hat. It’s completely random who they’re paired up with and who they go up against.

Participants help Andy Banas select random partners for the competitive players.

Participants help Andy Banas select random partners for the competitive players.

Anna Orso/Billy Penn

And the people who take part in this — at least in the competitive leagues — actually take it pretty seriously. Bill Atkinson, a 34-year-old who lives in Philly, has been playing in the Philadelphia Cornhole League in almost every season for nearly two years.

“Originally for me, it was just about the competitiveness,” he said. “But the people here are now the ones I hang out with all the time.”

The league’s sudden popularity, which can be several hundred people a season, was somewhat of a surprise to Banas and Puchalski, who say they never figured that the backyard game of cornhole could blow up like it did.

“We were baffled,” Puchalski said. “The sport is still growing. We just had an idea, and it just happened to be that everybody was just starting to take this seriously.

“And it was a little bit of luck.”

How to get involved

Registration for fall leagues is open. Here are what’s available:

  • Tuesday nights starting Sept. 29 at Crabby Cafe in the Piazza in Northern Liberties
  • Wednesday nights starting Sept. 30 at Mad River in Manayunk

The league also has these upcoming tournaments:

To register for an upcoming league or tournament, visit Philadelphia Cornhole League’s website.

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