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Competitive eaters gorge on calories, winnings

With 90 annual events and dozens of corporate sponsors, Major League Eating is a gurgitating juggernaut.
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Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, a top competitive eater, has won the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest for four years straight, with a personal record of downing 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes.Pat Shannahan / Digital
/ Source: Business Week

Jim Reeves was spitting blood. It was summer 2009, and the high school math teacher and competitive eater had driven eight hours from upstate New York to test his mettle at the Harrod Pork Rind Heritage Festival, the Rose Bowl of northwestern Ohio pork rind eating contests. In less varnished terms, Reeves wanted to see how many pork rinds he could shove down his throat in eight minutes — in front of 1,000 onlookers.

It turned out to be a worthwhile trip: During what the pros call gurgitating, Reeves consumed 11.32 ounces of crispy pig skin, won $750, and emerged as the Pork Rind Eating Champion of the World. He also tore up the roof of his mouth. Pork rinds have sharp edges.

The competition, sponsored by Rudolph Foods Pork Rinds, was packaged by the unlikely duo of George and Richard Shea. Their 13-year-old brainchild, Major League Eating, is proof that competitive eating is both a freakish spectacle during which mostly male competitors gorge themselves on grotesquely large amounts of food (without vomiting) and a big business. In addition to planning 90 eating events a year for corporate sponsors — from the Acme World Oyster Eating Championship in New Orleans to the World CheeseSteak Eating Championship at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa. — the competitive eating moguls guide the careers of the world’s best gurgitators, and, in return, require them to compete exclusively in MLE-sanctioned events.

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Their roster includes, among others, A-listers such as Joey “Jaws” Chestnut and Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas. The Sheas’ power is such that when former hot dog eating champion Takeru Kobayashi declined to sign an MLE contract in 2010, it nearly scuttled his once-glorious career. ESPN pays the MLE an undisclosed amount for the exclusive rights to broadcast the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest live. Last year the event drew 1.7 million viewers, with advertising equivalency estimated by the MLE at $300 million.

The Sheas, who value their monopoly in the millions, are unlikely eminences. The well-coiffed PR executives spend most of their time hustling publicity for an equally stomach-churning audience: New York’s real estate development industry. George Shea also recently launched a bedbug detection company, which gels rather nicely with his other concerns. In all these endeavors, however, the Brothers Shea exhibit a preternatural ability to whip up buzz. When Ari Fleischer left his job as White House Press Secretary in 2003, the MLE offered him a job. (According to a spokesperson, Fleischer does not remember the offer.)

The Sheas also devised the “belt-to-fat” theory: The less belly fat there is constricting the stomach, the more one can eat. Then they tried to get it published in the New England Journal of Medicine. “There is something that we’re doing with competitive eating,” says George, “that you couldn’t do with professional pogo stick jumping.”

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The Shea buzz machine has successfully attracted sponsors such as 7-Eleven, Roy Rogers, Krystal and Harrah’s, who pay handsomely for their services. Last July, Procter & Gamble’s Pepto-Bismol paid Joey Chestnut, the LeBron James of hot dog eating, more than $100,000 to endorse its product and go on a six-stop media tour. “I guess, at a really functional level, the product is indicated for overindulgence of food and drink,” says Jeff Jarrett, associate marketing director for Pepto-Bismol, which declined to comment on the size of the endorsement deal. That month Pepto saw double-digit increases in sales, and the brand’s Facebook page ended up acquiring 40,000 new fans.

The Pepto would have come in handy earlier this month when Pizza Hut hired the MLE to help with its own calzone eating contest during the Spike TV Guys Choice awards. On the red carpet, Scarlett Johansson posed for a photo with Chestnut. (“I was like, goddamn, that girl’s gorgeous,” Chestnut recalls.) Pizza Hut got its money’s worth, too: The company says it has wrung $6 million worth of media coverage from the contest. “When we started there was zero money in competitive eating. Zero,” says George Shea. “This past year it was $550,000 in purses for the eaters. That could never happen if there wasn’t a league.”

That’s probably true. And in its quest for buzz the MLE has dominated all rivals, such as All Pro Eating Promotions in Long Island, N.Y., and the World League of Competitive Eating, based in Atlanta and Bangalore. “We’re kind of the nice guys,” says All Pro founder and gurgitator Arnie Chapman. “We probably don’t charge as much.” As George Shea puts it: “There are other groups, copycat groups, that came up. It’s not the same level of success. What we bring to it is a certain sensibility. We bring PR ability to it, and the credibility. Most importantly, we have the eaters.”

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They also have the clients — and for good reason. Perhaps no business has benefited as much from competitive eating as Nathan’s Famous. In the 1960s, PR men Max Rosey and Morty Matz sold the idea of a hot dog eating contest to founder Nathan Handwerker and recruited contestants from nearby carnival rides. “We were looking for a couple of fat guys, you know, and then we got a couple of people, we did a little contest,” recalls company President Wayne Norbitz, who worked the 1977 affair in Coney Island. The first winner, recalls Matz, ate only 19 dogs.

When George Shea took over the contest in 1991, under Matz’s aegis, “It was much more of a local curiosity than it was an institution on the Fourth of July,” George says. In 1997, Shea, who had launched his own PR firm, formally took over the event and swiftly moved the business from what is known as “the trophy era” — when victorious gurgitators won only trophies — to the post-trophy era, in which they win money. But it wasn’t until Kobayashi stunned onlookers by downing 50 dogs in 2001 that the world truly took notice.

In 2004, the MLE signed on with ESPN, which “totally legitimized it,” says Richard Shea. When Chestnut beat Kobayashi in 2007, George Shea says, “It literally was on every single radio station, every radio morning show that day.” Last year, Nathan’s sold 425 million hot dogs. This year it’s expanding to China, with plans to open 80 restaurants there by 2021. This June, the MLE held its first-ever regional qualifier in Beijing; it is reserving three seats in Coney Island for the winners.

Like most gurgitators, Chestnut, 27, began his career during the trophy era. He stumbled on the vocation in 2005, when his younger brother signed him up for a lobster eating contest in Reno. “I had never eaten lobster before,” says Chestnut. “I think I only ate two and a half pounds, pre-cracked, but I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing.” Even so, he tied for third place. The big-time eaters took notice later that year, when he took home first prize in a deep-fried asparagus event in Stockton, Calif. In 2010 he earned $220,000 from competitive eating. This year he’s expected to make considerably more.

This financial success bodes well for the future of competitive eaters, but, somewhat contentiously, it has yet to trickle down to the league’s second-tier talent. “I live in New York City, and there’s no way I could afford to live off of what I earn,” says Timothy Janus, ranked by the MLE as the No. 3 eater in the world. Janus has never earned more than $35,000 a year from big-league eating. “We all hope to make more money, because it really stinks in some ways to see things so top-heavy,” he says. Math teacher Jim Reeves, ranked No. 18, barely makes enough to cover his travel expenses. Yet as most competitive eaters readily admit, the allure is not the money but something more ineffable. “The eaters,” says Chestnut, “look at it as a sport.”