Bags, beer and buddies: Cornhole flourishing in Sioux Falls

Cornhole: While it might have started as a tailgating pastime and backyard entertainment, it’s not just a game anymore.

Just ask Mike Isakson, who moved to Sioux Falls from Seattle in 2012 and saw the future this bean bag-throwing endeavor could have in his new hometown. Unlike on the west coast, he struggled to find a regulation cornhole league here. And yes, there is a right and a wrong way to play cornhole.

“There were lots of little leagues here and there,” Isakson said. “But the board distances weren’t correct. People weren’t using the right bags. There was no regulation here.”

Isakson said he wanted to start an organization that coordinated local tournaments and let local bars host and advertise these events, all while raising awareness for the sport. So, he formed SoDak Cornhole, which has run American Cornhole League-regulated leagues and tournaments locally year-round since 2014.

The group has steadily grown in popularity, currently sitting at more than 1,200 followers on Facebook. Attendance is consistently high, especially in the summer when there are multiple leagues held a week to fit the demand. When Isakson, a sales engineer, moved back to Seattle in 2016 for his job, he handed over control of the group to Tony “T-Bone” Buehlmann, a participant in SoDak Cornhole since the beginning.

“Once I tried [cornhole], I was hooked,” Buehlmann said at a tournament held at Sport Bowl a few weeks ago. “I still enjoy being around it, even though I run it more than I play now.”

This weekend, Sioux Falls enters the big leagues of cornhole. From Sept. 13-15, SoDak Cornhole players and anybody else in the region looking to try out their corn hole throw will be able to compete in the $13,000 Sanford Pentagon Cornhole Classic. Presented by Southwest Minnesota Cornhole, the tournament is open to experts and beginners alike.

Matt Ditmanson, director of business development for the Sanford Sports Complex, said the tournament should continue to grow due to the flourishing local cornhole community.

“There’s a huge fanbase for this,” Ditmanson said. “It’s a spectator sport.”

Buehlmann, a technician at Glass Doctor, spends a good chunk of his free time running the group. There are separate seasons in the summer, fall and winter, each with a different number of leagues depending on how many people sign up.

This summer, Buehlmann ran leagues on Tuesdays at Sport Bowl, Wednesdays at Big J’s Road House and Thursdays at Woody’s Pub & Grill.

In league play, the style is usually”bring your own partner,” where participants can play with whomever they choose. They pay $60 to join the league, which goes into a payout pool. Players earn points depending on how they place each week – 20 for the first place team, 18 for second and so on.

Each league culminates with a final night where, in a full 20 team league, the teams are split into separate brackets of the top 10 and bottom 10 teams. Both brackets pay out cash prizes from the entry fee and money that the venue will often contribute.

Buehlmann also occasionally runs pop-up tournaments, like the one at Sport Bowl. These often consist of a $20 social and $40 competitive double elimination bracket, with the top four in each bracket claiming the prizes.

Leagues like those run by SoDak Cornhole also give a boost to the venues they’re held at by bringing in new crowds of customers, according to Bryan Parker, co-owner of Sport Bowl.

“It brings in people who might not think of us at first as a place to be,” Parker said. “And that’s what growing a business is all about.”

At every competition, Buehlmann is there, sitting by his computer awaiting results of each match so he can update the bracket and call out the next two competitors. Players are quite creative with their team names, from Hillbilly Holers and Bag for Mercy to, well, let’s just say there are a lot of colorful puns to be made with bags and holes.

“I think they come up with these just so I have to call them out,” Buehlmann said with a laugh.

One of Buehlmann’s favorite parts of SoDak Cornhole is the laid-back atmosphere of the sport. While there certainly are fierce competitors, Buehlmann said that everybody tends to get along.

“I really love meeting new people through this,” he said. “It’s a really good group that doesn’t give me much trouble. Some people try to bring their own liquor into the venues, but I do my best to police that and people are mostly very respectful of that.”

While SoDak Cornhole operates year-round, the warmer months allow for matches to be played outside. At the Sport Bowl tournament, it felt like a pre-game tailgate, with people enjoying food and drink while lounging on their lawn chairs. And, it’s a sport that players of all ages and skill levels can enjoy.

“It’s a game that I can play at my age,” said James Walsworth, a regular in the Wednesday night league for the past 4 years. “I can compete while also spending good time with my family.”

In this respect, SoDak Cornhole is accomplishing exactly what Isakson set out to do: create an atmosphere where people can play cornhole competitively while forming a tight-knit community at the same time.

“The atmosphere is really good here,” Isakson said. “I just haven’t met a bad person in this sport.”

“What’s great about cornhole is that everybody can beat everybody; age doesn’t matter. I bring my 14 year-old son out sometimes and his throw might even be prettier than mine.”

Isakson returned to Sioux Falls last year, but Buehlmann still handles the majority of the day-to-day operations. Isakson, however, is still heavily involved with spreading the sport in the Sioux Falls community. He’s currently developing a “Sioux Falls Cornhole List,” where players can jockey to be ranked in the top 10 in the city. Starting Sept. 21, he and Buehlmann will host three tournaments to decide who will be named to the first list.

“It’ll be neat for these players to see themselves ranked as the best in Sioux Falls,” he said.

For more information on how to join SoDak Cornhole, visit its Facebook page.

Bags, beer and buddies: Cornhole flourishing in Sioux Falls

Cornhole: While it might have started as a tailgating pastime and backyard entertainment, it’s not just a game anymore.

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