From its humble pie-eating-contest roots in county fairs to the frankfurter mecca of Nathan's Famous in Coney Island, N.Y., the slice of Americana now known as the sport of Major League Eating (MLE) has grown into a $10 million industry.
Regulated by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) since 1997, MLE sanctions between 75 and 100 events annually in eight countries, challenging gurgitators (as the competitors are known) to feast on a host of foods that would extend beyond the grocery list needed to make Thanksgiving breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert. (It's a wonder "Thanksgiving Dinner" isn't just added as a new competition, since turkey, turducken, cranberry sauce, green beans, sweet potato casserole and pumpkin pie records are all on the books.)
Unlike mainstream sports leagues, MLE operates without gate receipts, a television contract, or any significant merchandise sales. Instead the gastro-centric league earns money from sponsors of franchise events like the Krystal Square Off, the hamburger eating championship named after the chain known as "the White Castle of the South" (and the league's top-prized contest), and local festivals, like the Stockton Asparagus Fest, home of the deep-fried asparagus-eating contest. MLE also collects a small fee from the Nintendo Wii game "Major League Eating: The Game."
In return, under the guidance of George and Richard Shea, the brothers who founded the IFOCE to establish eating contests as a legitimate sport, MLE produces the envy of public relation events--spectacles of ordinary people eating extraordinary amounts of food that, somehow both disgusting and wildly entertaining, defy viewers to turn away.
It's the perfect recipe for creating buzz--and no event generates more than the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog-Eating Contest. It is MLE's equivalent of the Kentucky Derby: 20 of the top eaters in the world vie for the coveted Mustard Yellow Belt. Thanks in part to its tradition dating back to 1916, the event was historically considered the nation's premier eating contest, drawing an annual crowd upward of 1,000 people.
But then, in 2001, 130-pound Japanese rookie Takeru Kobayashi shook the sport and shattered the record book by devouring 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes--twice as many as the previous year's winner. The news made international headlines, and a year later, he returned to defend his title, setting a new record with 50 and a half hot dogs in front of a crowd more than double any previous year's attendance.
ESPN took notice, and in 2004 acquired the rights to air the competition live through 2012, paying a licensing fee to do so. (It's the kind of deal the National Hockey League has been unable to work out with the sports network.)
When Joey Chestnut came along in 2007 and upset then six-time champ Kobayashi by housing 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes to set a new world record--and bringing the Mustard Yellow Belt back under American control--some 40,000 fans gathered to watch. Last year, when Chestnut defended his title in a dramatic five-dog overtime eat-off with Kobayashi (the two had tied at 59 dogs in the new 10-minute format), the New York Police Department pegged the crowd closer to 50,000--more than the capacity of almost every Major League Baseball ballpark. Additionally, more than 1 million viewers watched the contest live on ESPN, making it the most-watched program the network aired that day.
But the clear winner was Nathan's. For what Eric Gatoff, chief executive, describes as a "high-six-figure" investment for the sponsorship (including the regional qualifying circuit competitions), the return was astronomical. Last year, the event generated more than $125 million in media value worldwide.
Such coverage, particularly on ESPN, resulted in an increase in global brand awareness and business. Nathan's now distributes in the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, China and Japan, and has gone from selling its products in 9,300 retail and food service locations in 2003 to more than 18,000 today.
While Gatoff stops short of saying the company's growth is entirely attributable to the hot-dog-eating contest, he points out that it is the centerpiece of the company's consumer marketing strategy. Indeed, other than spotting its name and products associated with the New York Yankees and New York Mets, consumers will be hard-pressed to find a Nathan's television or print ad.
"For budget-conscious marketers, MLE is ideal," says the IFOCE's Richard Shea. "Sponsors can do one simple, off-weekend event that costs what an ad in a large daily paper might cost and then end up with a domestic TV news report valued at north of $10 million," Shea says. "Then there's buzz--the ESPN demo, the Spike demo, guys 18 to 34, they all know about Major League Eating, its events and its stars."
It's a value model other sports--niche or major league--are unable to provide. Which is why sponsors large and small have been increasingly attracted to MLE events. In 1997, seven IFOCE-sanctioned events were sponsored. This year, it will have over 70.
Included among them are Pizza Hut, which sponsors the Pizza Hut P'Zone Chow-lenge, which this year featured a showdown between Kobayashi and Chestnut (Kobayashi won by one-fourth of a P'zone) and was aired on Spike television's Guys' Choice Awards TV show.
Iconic ketchup maker Heinz has become an ancillary sponsor of Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. And while there are no beverage contests, Coca-Cola and Smirnoff have associated themselves with MLE competitions.
"For the competitors in these events, it's a lot of work. For some fans and critics, it's a little tongue-in-cheek," said Gatoff, "But for those of us who sponsor them, it's the greatest publicity stunt ever."
(Christina Settimi, Forbes.com)