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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

NC trend: Stacey Moore lifts cornhole to unexpected heights

Cornhole has become continually more popular since emerging in the 1980s as a favorite game at bars and football tailgates. But only one person, Charlotte’s Stacey Moore, has had the vision to elevate it from a game to a sport. 

The 52-year-old commissioner of the American Cornhole League is seven years into a venture that no one, including his friends and family, saw as ending well.

The privately held business has a regular slot with ESPN, where it has periodically attracted more viewers than more established sports. It  also has a three-year contract with CBS Sports, a database of 250,000 players in 15 countries, and a stake in manufacturing cornhole boards. Sponsors, including Bacardi, Discount Tire, Johnsonville and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, view cornhole as a savvy pitch to the target market of  21- to 40-year-old males.

“There was no one that said, ‘Hey, Stacey, I think this is a great idea,’” Moore says. “Other than cornhole players. They said, ‘If you can bring us prize money, we’ll come play for your league.’”

In 2015, when he established the ACL, Moore spent $50,000 in prize money. Last year, the company paid out more than $5 million to contestants, including $1 million to tournament winners among the 250 professionals in the league’s top division.

The 1991 graduate of N.C. State University is the son and grandson of textile executives. His grandfather rose from mopping the factory floor to CEO of Reeves Brothers, a New York textile company that had North Carolina plants. His father, William Moore, was a top executive there and later owned Spartanburg, South Carolina-based Sally Foster Gift Wrap, a school fundraising product.

Photo of Stacey Moore
Stacey Moore

Moore graduated from college a year early to help his family launch the Greensboro Gators professional basketball franchise in Greensboro. It folded after just one season in the Global Basketball Association. 

After working as portfolio manager for Bank of America and later for his own investment firm,  Moore started Tailgating Ventures, which  combined his love for sports and game-day fun. What he discovered was the potential to grow cornhole. 

Moore, whose office is in Rock Hill, South Carolina, discussed how he saw what nobody else did. This interview was edited for clarity. 

How did you land on cornhole?

Everywhere we went, people were playing cornhole way more seriously than other tailgating games. I thought, “What is it about this particular tailgating game that gets everyone so amped up?” I started talking to players who were playing competitively, who wanted to enter in tournaments and play for money, to get to know more about it. The best way to learn is to actually run events. So that’s what I did [with the Carolinas Cornhole Tour in 2013-14]. 

What were they so passionate about?

Cornhole gets compared a lot to bowling or another recreational sport, but to me it was always more like tennis because you’ve got offense and defense. You’re throwing a bag and the result of that bag determines the strategy for the next person. There was a lot more strategy to the sport at the competitive level than people were recognizing. And I enjoyed watching it: the pace of play, the cadence, the interaction between opponents. 

What made your league different from your peers?

We developed software to capture scores and stats and manage events specific to the sport of cornhole. Then being able to display it on television to an audience was the next part.

How did ESPN get into the picture? 

[A high school friend] introduced me to one of his buddies who was working at Disney ABC. Then I got introduced to someone on the content team at ESPN that I just started pitching. They gave us a shot on ESPN3 on their digital network. That was in 2016. We were about two months out from the World Championships in 2017, and a person said, “Hey, we’ve got a live slot on ESPN2 on Saturday during your world championships. Do you want to do something?”

What was your biggest challenge then? 

When I got the price of what it was going to take to produce the show, I had sticker shock. I had to find another sponsor, and I didn’t have a ton of time to do it. I picked five companies to email on LinkedIn, and [Wisconsin-based sausage company] Johnsonville was one of the five. (I wrote,) “I’ve got a cornhole broadcast on ESPN coming up and I’m looking for sponsors. Would you be interested?” And he emailed me back, “You had me at cornhole.” It was just timing. It was the right person. A lot of it was luck. 

How did the broadcast go?

Within 10 minutes of the opening of the show, we got an email from a producer [at ESPN] saying, “You did this wrong, this wrong, and this wrong.” I thought, “We’re done.” But then halfway through our show, the executive producer said, “Do you have any idea what’s going on Twitter?” I said, “No, I’m just trying to make sure the next player is out of the bathroom and to the board on time.”

What was happening on Twitter?

Twitter erupted about the broadcast and the fact that cornhole was on live TV. A lot of people wanted to make a joke about it and laugh about it. But people tuned in just to see what it’s all about, and then they realized they wanted to keep on watching it. Coming out of that broadcast, ESPN entered into a two-year agreement with us.

Was that your most gratifying moment?

That first telecast. Running that championship took four days. We didn’t sleep. The people working at it may have gotten an hour or two of sleep a day. Just the stress of not having ever done a linear telecast or know what that’s all about. Then to have it blow up like that was pretty crazy. Once all the dust settled that night, it was a really emotional time.

Why was it so emotional?

No one else could see what I was seeing with the sport. Even the people that were working there, friends and everyone else around, no one understood the magnitude of what just happened.

Were you thinking of your late father, knowing he would have been proud?

Yeah, you could say that. By the same token, I may not have done it if he was still alive. He might have talked me out of it. He probably would have been the only person in my family telling me that I was crazy where I probably would have thought, “OK, I’m not going to take the risk on it because he told me it was dumb.” 

What’s the closest you’ve come to giving up?

There were times I thought, financially, I was going to be forced to pack it up. Once COVID hit, that was one of the times I thought we were done. We were up in Cleveland in March 2020. We’d set up 180,000 square feet, 200 sets of boards, and a broadcast court. Everyone from the production companies, all the players had flown in that Thursday to start the first thing Friday morning. They pulled the plug on us Thursday night. We had already paid a ton of money to put on that show, and then we couldn’t execute on it.

How did you pull yourself out of that?

It was probably three or four days, where I thought, “This thing has just miserably crashed and burned. It’s over.” But then I said, “You know what? We’re going to become the first live sport back on TV.”

What made you think that? 

Our sport has a natural social distance component to it that no other sport has. We developed social distancing rules, pitched them to ESPN and to the governor of South Carolina. We limited the number of players that could come and play to 25-to-30 or 30-to-60, depending on the location. The second place I was targeting was Texas because we needed to get somewhere within driving distance of at least 30 good pros. And we went to Phoenix.

Were you the first live sport back on TV?

Yes. Ultimate Fighting Championship did an event the same day we did but later in the day, so technically, we were first. And we were on for seven straight weeks. 

Did regular ESPN airtime cause a shock to the heart that
ACL needed?

Yeah, people were watching the sport, loving the sport. Our social media went to a different level. And that’s when I started getting emails from groups out of New York, saying, “Hey, we got money we’re going to throw your way.” I knew I was going to need investors and other partners, so I listened to three different groups. The people I liked best were John Thompson III (a former Georgetown University basketball coach who is with Monumental Sports & Entertainment in Washington, D.C.) and his partner Jim Simmons (of Asland Capital Partners in New York). That enabled us to build out the headquarters, invest more money in infrastructure and hire more people.    

picture of an American Cornhole League court    

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