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Could Competitive Eating Become a Global Sport?

The 'Superbowl' of speed eating, the Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, held on July 4 on Coney Island, could become a global sport, its organizer told, as the event enters its 96th year.

NEW YORK - JULY 4: Joey Chestnut (L) of San Jose, California holds up the American flag and his champion belt after defeating Takeru Kobayashi of Nagano, Japan and Patrick "deep dish" Bertoletti in the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest on July 4, 2009 in Coney Island in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Chestnut defeated Kobayashi with eating 68 to his 64.5 hotdogs. Kobayashi won six previous competitions before tying last year with Chestnut. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty
Yana Paskova

"Competitive eating is a fast-growing sport and entertainment product. We do just shy of 100 events a year around the world, primarily in the United States but we're also going overseas," Rich Shea, president of Major League Eating (MLE), said in an interview.

"At the 4th July contest itself, which is our biggest day, our superbowl, we get 40,000 fans, we'll have a blimp and an ESPN broadcast with just shy of two million households tuning in," Shea added.

Eating contests, from the ESPN-televised spectacles of Major League Eating to the signs at roadside grills that promise free meals for diners capable of squeezing in plate-sized stakes, are a quintessentially American cultural feature that have historically had little currency outside of the US, but Shea said that the contest – won for the past four years by the American Joey Chestnut – has global appeal.

"We did an event in China this year and had a great amount of success," he said. "We have three eaters from China coming to for Nathan's Famous. Nathan's itself is entering China. We're doing a big tour down the Pacific Rim and into Australia and into New Zealand this year. I think this is something that could be an export from America and could be a global sport."

'Gurgitators' – as in, the opposite of 'regurgitate' – like Joey Chestnut can make as much as $10,000 per event, and Chestnut himself earns around $220,000 per year from professional eating, according to Shea.

For the first time, MLE will also be hosting a women's event on Coney Island, as it looks to expand its demographic, currently mainly men aged between 18-40, Shea said.

'Regular Guys'

Shea, who used to work in public relations for Nathan's Famous, and his brother George, started Major League Eating with David Baer in the late 1990s. Then, he said, there was "no one really archiving results in different food categories and no one really advancing the sport safely and maintaining its integrity... you can't just do a hot dog contest and say you're the champ. You have to win the real hot dog contest"

2011 will see the 96th hot dog eating contest on Coney Island, but turning the tradition into a marketable franchise - with a TV deal and its own stars - has been the job of MLE. Shea said that the success is partly down to the sport's "talent," who are somewhat easier for the average viewer to relate to than the average professional athlete.

"You have to look at the eaters themselves – look at big sports like the NBA – they've had a little backlash because the guys are such stars, and they're so otherworldly and they're so overpaid," Shea said.

"It's hard to connect with a guy like LeBron (James), and the NBA feels that pinch a little bit. Not to take anything away from the NBA, but you have an everyman or everywoman, it's just a Jane or a Joe from down the street competing. That's compelling. These are regular guys. Joey Chestnut has won four straight Nathan's contests and he makes a good amount of money, but he's just a regular guy."

Shea is also quick to dissociate the Nathan's Famous event from accusations that it promotes overeating.

"I think that if you look at these guys, they're not unhealthy, they're in pretty good shape, they come from what you might call traditional sports backgrounds. They might be a marathon runner or a swimmer in college or a football player who has decided to compete in eating as they get older… You won't see an obese person in our event, actually," he said.

"I wouldn't characterize this as overeating. You may be cringing, but these guys don't eat like this every day. Nascar has had success for decades and they burn a lot of oil, but these guys don't drive 200 [miles/hour] down their block in the suburb, and our guys don't eat like this on a regular weekend."