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’Hole new ballgame! American Cornhole League’s first Pro Invitational set for July 4 in Coney Island

Top-ranked player Cody Henderson competes in a cornhole

Top-ranked player Cody Henderson competes in a cornhole tournament. Credit: Jason Ogulnik

It worked for darts. And bowling. And curling. And billiards.

And it worked for other pursuits associated with casual recreation and adult beverages that have been turned into legitimate — and telegenic — athletic competitions. Now cornhole appears to be having its moment.

Witness the American Cornhole League and its first Pro Invitational, scheduled for the Cyclones’ MCU Park on July 4 as part of a Coney Island Americana double feature on ESPN2, following the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.

The second event will be far less disgusting and unhealthful than the first, while featuring an activity as familiar as eating a hot dog. It is a formalized version of the bean-bag toss game that folks have played for generations.

Only make no mistake: These are professionals, and this is serious business.

Cody Henderson, the ACL’s top-ranked player, frequently must remind people of that when someone at a bar or a small-town tournament gets hot, learns who he is and wants to take him on.

“Usually I tell them I’m not interested,” Henderson said. “I take no satisfaction in beating a dead horse. If they really want to play, I’ll just play and have fun with it. Even me backing off, they’re probably not going to score.”

Surely, he is tempted to pick up spare change hustling, no?

“It’s all in fun,” he said. “I tell them, ‘I don’t want to take your money. We’re on a completely different level. You just got 20 percent of my [best] game.’ ”

If that reads cocky, it does not come off that way when listening to Henderson, 26, who grew up in a small town in southern Ohio and works as a warehouse manager. His visit to New York City for the Pro Invitational will be his first.

It is just that while Henderson, his fellow players and ACL organizers, headed by CEO Stacy Moore, want to put on a show in person and on TV, they also believe that taking the competition itself seriously is crucial.

“A lot of people have picked up a bag before and may think they’re pretty good in their backyard,” Moore said. “Then they see these guys who can throw it in at will . . . We want to have fun with it and keep it light but also definitely show people this is an actual sport.”

Said Henderson, “We’re there to do a job. We are in every sense of the word professional . . . I like to talk to my opponent and look at the crowd. I like keeping everybody involved because it is fun. But you don’t want to take yourself out of the game.

“I’m much better off winning and not putting on a show. That’s the league’s job and so far they’ve been doing a great job of it.”

The ACL is an offshoot of an earlier venture by Moore, 48, that included various “tailgating games.” Over time it became evident that cornhole was the most popular among them, so he focused on that.

“People were taking cornhole a lot more seriously than the other tailgating games out there,” he said. “What it needed was organization and technology to capture the scores and statistics in order to broadcast it as a legitimate sport.”

Everyone involved has been surprised with the rapid rise in its visibility.

“It’s unbelievable,” Henderson said. “This is something we dreamed about, something we heard talked about in other leagues before the ACL formed . . . We really do wake up every day and say, ‘How in the world is cornhole in this position and how in the world are we as top players in this position?’ It’s mind-blowing.”

By the summer of 2016 ESPN3 was covering events digitally and last July ESPN2 televised its first event. In December of 2017 ESPNU carried a college tournament live.

Moore expects the July 4 event, set for 1 to 3 p.m., to be the ACL’s most-viewed live telecast yet. Admission will be free with a voucher, and 1,000 fans also will get tickets to that night’s Cyclones game.

Eight two-man teams were determined in a blind draw and will compete in 10-round, single-elimination matches. Henderson will play with Mike Pfaff.

The halftime show will feature a match involving people dressed as Ben Franklin, George Washington, a bald eagle and the Statue of Liberty.

The prize pool is $20,000, with the winners splitting $4,000.

Cornhole has not evolved to the point players can make it a full-time job, but that could someday happen with the help of the sponsors whose names are featured prominently on telecasts and in-person signage — and on players’ clothing.

Viewers will see players competing in a simple game that at that level is not as simple as it looks.

“You can become pretty good at cornhole by doing a certain amount of practice and following tips and techniques from the pros,” Moore said. “You don’t have to be the most athletic person to practice and get control of the bag.

“From ‘pretty good’ to ‘great’ is where people separate themselves.”

Henderson was a teenager when he and a cousin would enter recreational tournaments near home, then he began moving up the ranks in skill and prize money. Now he is a star.

Before, the economics of traveling to the Northeast for an unsure payday did not make sense. But an invitational with some guaranteed money? In Brooklyn? On live national TV? That works.

“I can’t say I’m nervous about playing, because I love the spotlight,” he said. “I love people watching me. But the navigation has me a little intimidated. [New York] is a little intimidating for someone like me — I’m going to have to put on my big-boy pants.”

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