NORFOLK — When you think of cornhole, visions of tailgating, beer-drinking, and backyard picnics come to mind.
Virtually anyone can play it, and it’s debatable whether it even qualifies as a sport.
But there’s big money in those little bags, and Claudell Clark is planning to bring some of it to Hampton Roads.
Clark, the executive director of the Hampton Roads Sports Commission, is among the leaders organizing the “Beast of the Beach” cornhole tournament this weekend at the Virginia Beach Field House. The event, formerly known as the 757 Summer Corn Hole Throwdown, will feature $17,000 in guaranteed payouts and a number of notable professionals competing for the top prize of $4,500.
Clark, a former baseball player, and coach at Norfolk State raised nearly $20,000 in corporate sponsorships and registered almost 500 players for the event, which he hopes to parlay into an even grander tournament in December to be broadcast on TV.
“Not only are we putting all this together and highlighting local players and so many people who play cornhole,” Clark said, “the story is also: ‘Hey, look, we’re planning to do this even bigger with the national governing body — on television — in the future.’ ”
For the uninitiated, the object of cornhole is to earn points by tossing hand-sized bags filled with feed corn (hence the name) through a hole in a board. It’s a staple at outdoor gatherings throughout the country.
Among the most serious players is Portsmouth native and Suffolk resident Allan Rockwell, who went from Norfolk Naval Shipyard employee to unlikely cornhole star.
Rockwell first encountered the game at a shipyard picnic, where he quickly took to it. But it was hardly by design.
“I had never even heard of it,” Rockwell said. “I just thought it was just a backyard thing.”
A couple of months later, he got word that there was a regular game at a gift shop in the Driver neighborhood of Suffolk. He started playing in tournaments with a $2 buy-in before he and a group of friends began traveling the area to find tournaments.
Rockwell, now retired from the shipyard, is a professional. He’s tied for 13th in the ACL’s points standings.
How lucrative is playing cornhole for a living? Rockwell said some top players sign six-figure sponsorship deals.
“If you get the right sponsors, yeah, you can make a living on it,” said the 60-year-old Rockwell, who is among the pros who will play at the Field House this weekend.
Clark’s event is more than a mere tournament. Sponsors will have displays and inflatables, and the event features live music, food, and beer as well as an opportunity to learn from the pros.
With multiple levels of play, it’s open to anyone who wants to compete. There will be a competitive division and a tailgating doubles division, for which players bring their own partners.
“A lot of times, you go see a cornhole tournament in a hotel ballroom, and it’s just boards and bags and people and beer,” Clark said. “But this one will look like a little festival on top of all that. So it’ll be a neat setup people haven’t seen in the cornhole community. They’re not used to having all that stuff on top of it.”
For Rockwell, the weekend is a warmup for the ACL World Championships, which will take place Aug. 2-8 in Rock Hill, South Carolina, with a $150,000 purse.
The key to reaching his skill level, Rockwell said, is similar to how one masters any sporting pursuit.
“The people that have the fire for it are better because they practice,” he said. “They go to all the different venues and they ask questions. They watch video.”
Clark believes what was once viewed as a game to pass the time until kickoff is as much a sport as bowling or golf, both of which have longstanding professional tours.
“It’s not impact sports, and it’s not baseball, softball, football — your mainstream sports,” Clark said. “But it’s certainly a sport targeting muscle memory, scoring. It’s certainly a sport in that aspect. But the reason why I like it: This is a sport that can be played for a lifetime, from 6 to 96.
“You can throw cornhole until your days are done. So it’s this lifelong hobby, lifelong sport, lifelong family thing.”
And, he hopes, a lucrative thing for the region.
David Hall, email@example.com