Richard Shea sets his stall out early. “Not only is it a sport, I think it’s the purest sport known to man and one of the most inherent sports – eating is as germane to survival as running and jumping. Without doubt it’s a sport.”
Shea is the commissioner of Major League Eating (MLE), which doubles as the organiser of professional contests and as the international federation of competitive eating. “I think the loose definition of a sport is a physical activity governed by a set of rules – ours is clearly that,” he argues. “If you look at modern sports and look at Tom Brady or Wayne Rooney, these guys train, they watch tapes, it’s a mental activity, the focus is high. Competitive eating has been around since the dawn of man. We created the league that gave it the trappings of sport – the rankings, the prize purses – but without a doubt it is a sport.”
Competitive eating’s most famous event is the 4th July hotdog eating contest held in Coney Island, Brooklyn, sponsored by Nathan’s Famous. The contest dates back to 1916, when the local hotdog company held a contest between four immigrants to determine which was the most American on Independence Day.
Irish immigrant Jim Mullen won that first challenge, consuming 13 hotdogs in ten minutes. In 2014, winner Joey Chestnut devoured 61 in the same amount of time, in front of a large, excitable crowd and those watching from home on ESPN – the contest is usually broadcast live but in 2014 was tape-delayed due to the small matter of the Fifa World Cup.
Shea and his brother George, MLE’s chairman, were doing public relations for Nathan’s Famous before striking out on their own and founding the MLE organisation in the mid-1990s. MLE now sanctions around 80 events a year, but the centrepiece remains the 4th July contest. MLE made around US$300,000 through sponsorships in 2014, although most sponsorship deals necessarily revolve around the supply of foodstuffs.
“We’ve been very lucky to have venerable brands from around the world, but primarily in the US,” Shea reports, pointing to an oyster-eating contest with New Orleans brand Acme and pizza competitions with Pizza Hut as examples. Safety is paramount, of course, but Shea believes it is also important that the public are able to identify with the achievements.
“We’re not about the gross-out,” he insists. “Doing wild and wacky things like that doesn’t really resonate with viewers or fans, because nobody really knows what it is to eat a bowl of mayonnaise – nobody really eats mayonnaise by the bowl, yet we all know what it means to eat a dozen oysters or a couple of hotdogs. When you think 48 dozen oysters in ten minutes or 69 hotdogs, then you can say, ‘Wow, what a feat!’
The top eaters now command appearance fees for the biggest events. Combined with the prize money available at smaller contests, it makes life as a professional eater viable for top stars like Chestnut and Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi.
Shea says he would “never close the door” on possible Olympic participation, but that MLE has previously been “snubbed” by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its former president Jacques Rogge. At the height of the judging scandal in the skating competition at the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Olympics, MLE sent a letter offering the IOC its impartial judges; they received no response. “We’ve given up on what maybe was once a dream,” Shea says. “We’ve had great success without them.”
The IOC apart, Shea senses there is more acceptance of competitive eating than perhaps a decade ago. “We get fewer and fewer sceptics now,” he says, “although some do remain. My response is come to an event, or watch on ESPN. It’s incredible: mind over matter, but a physical activity. I believe it’s beautiful. I think it’s glorious.”