Appetite for Intestinal Destruction: The Big Business of Competitive Eating

Illustration by: Dan Woodger

As Nathan’s Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest approaches, the train wreck of televised sports is drawing huge audiences, lucrative endorsement deals and fame for its "gurgitators."

"I don’t care if they call us athletes,” says Tim Janus, better known to his fans as Eater X. “What we’re doing is really physical.”

What Janus and his rivals are doing is consuming massive amounts of food in short periods of time, to the delight and disgust of millions of competitive-eating enthusiasts worldwide. Currently the third-seeded pro in Major League Eating, Janus, 36, is bested by Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, the 30-year-old reigning champ, who last year coasted to a seventh straight victory at the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest.

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Chestnut inhaled a record 69 franks and buns that day -- more than 20,000 calories -- in only 10 minutes. (Janus, who holds the world record for longest burp, consumed 50, good for third place.)

What began as novelty events at local fairs has evolved during the past decade into big business, stretching notions of what constitutes a legitimate sport as it stretches the overtaxed stomachs of the league’s best “gurgitators.” Top competitors have become household names as they travel the country, vying for a total of $700,000 in prize money and appearance fees while downing wieners, oysters, chicken wings, burritos and whatever else is put in front of them.

The circuit now consists of nearly 60 contests, all of which are overseen by Major League Eating, a regulatory body founded in 1997 by brothers George and Richard Shea, colorful New York PR executives who have cornered the competitive-eating market. After taking Nathan’s on as a client, George was charmed by the chain’s annual contest, held since 1916 outside its flagship restaurant in Coney Island, and spotted a potential gold mine.

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“When we founded the league, the mission was to advance the sport safely and maintain its integrity,” says Richard. “We have judges; we have rules; we take it seriously.”

Growing fascination with the gross-out sport has proved an enticing draw for sponsors including Hooters and Pizza Hut, as well as for ESPN, which holds exclusive broadcast rights to the annual Nathan’s eat-off through 2024.

“[The contest] had a built-in audience not only with a national but an international audience,” says Jason Bernstein, ESPN’s senior director of programming and acquisitions, who closed the sport’s first TV deal with the Sheas a decade ago -- where else? -- over lunch. He could not be more pleased with his decision as more than 1 million viewers have tuned in eight years running.

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The competition rules are simple: The food is weighed (in the case of a bulk item like lasagna) or cut into even pieces, and competitors can swallow it any way they like. Liquid, usually water, is permitted to help it go down. When time is called, if food remains in contestants’ mouths, it counts. Vomiting, alternately referred to as the Golden Rule, the Roman method or a reversal of fortune, results in instant disqualification.

Chestnut preps by binging on whatever food is up next. During the days leading up to a big meet, he’ll chug milk by the gallon to increase his stomach capacity then stop eating solid food entirely.

If the sport had a defining moment, it happened July 4, 2001, when 23-year-old Japanese competitor Takeru Kobayashi doubled the previous record, downing 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes. With his lean build, telegenic looks and superhuman capacity, Kobayashi became the sport’s first superstar. He’d dominate for five more years until Chestnut took the coveted Mustard Belt in 2007.

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Their rivalry helped boost interest in the sport until 2010, when Kobayashi very publicly broke from MLE by refusing to sign a contract he felt was too constraining. He showed up at that year’s Nathan’s contest in a “Free Kobi” T-shirt and, swept up in the moment, mounted the stage and refused to get down. As the crowd chanted, “Let him eat! Let him eat!” Kobayashi was handcuffed by police and charged with resisting arrest and trespassing, landing him in jail overnight. The charges later were dismissed, but the controversy tarnished his legacy, leading to his photo being removed from Nathan’s Wall of Fame.

Now 36, Kobayashi lives in New York and makes a living through paid appearances while working to launch a signature line of gourmet hot dogs. He’s trying his best to put the bad blood with MLE behind him.

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“For me, it’s over,” he says through Maggie James, who serves triple duty as his manager, interpreter and girlfriend. “The press still takes that story and asks questions and doesn’t let it pass because they want to continue the whole saga. … Talking about me negatively only helps them.” (For their part, the Sheas acknowledge Kobayashi’s legacy, calling him “a fantastic eater and great champ.”)

If Kobayashi was the sport’s Michael Jordan, taking it places previously thought impossible, then Chestnut is its LeBron James, its current most valuable eater -- literally. His 2011 earnings exceeded $220,000, thanks in part to an endorsement deal with Pepto-Bismol. Chestnut, who quit his job in construction management to compete full time, is still adjusting to his peculiar brand of fame.

“It’s ridiculous,” he laughs. “I still see myself as a normal, goofy guy.”

The 2014 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest will air live July 4 on ESPNews and WatchESPN at 12 p.m. ET.

Twitter: @SethAbramovitch