What Does the Future of Major League Eating Look Like Following a Pandemic?

Can the league survive?

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Joey Chestnut, George Shea, and Miki Sudo at the 2019 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest | Paul Martinka
Joey Chestnut, George Shea, and Miki Sudo at the 2019 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest | Paul Martinka

Summer sun beat down on the wooden planks of Coney Island’s boardwalk on July 4, 2019. The smell of salty ocean breeze tangled with the unmistakable scent of sausages awaiting demolition settled over the crowd of people who had assembled to observe the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. What better way to celebrate America’s freedom from British rule than to watch the reigning champions of the Mustard Belt, Joey Chestnut, and Miki Sudo, impressively snarf down hot dog after hot dog?

Competitive eating is a sport, but also a spectacle. It leans into its zaniness with enthusiastic hosts that inject crowds with fiery fervor and professional eaters that ride deafening cheers to stomach-bloating victories. But what’s a spectacle without spectators? How can Major League Eating continue to host its season -- where competitors stand shoulder to shoulder alongside an elongated table, unable to wear masks, shoveling soaked buns into their mouths -- in the midst of a pandemic? 

Last year alone, the boardwalk welcomed over 40,000 people to wear foam hot dog bun hats while cheering on their favorite contestants while approximately 2 million people tuned in via ESPN. This year, the hosts must grapple with maintaining safety while providing entertainment -- something all sports leagues are currently struggling with. A recent New York Times survey of 511 epidemiologists revealed that 64% would wait a year -- or more -- to attend their next sporting event. That hasn’t stopped the NBA from railing for the return of a season, which is slated to begin sans fans on July 30, or the MLB for approving a shortened season with minimized travel that’s said to start on July 23. 

All sports are coping -- including Major League Eating. The pandemic can not erase the significance of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, a well-loved component of observing Independence Day alongside viewing fireworks, barbecuing outside, and wearing American flag T-shirts. The captivating display of overgorging has taken place in some capacity at Nathan’s on Coney Island’s boardwalk since the ‘70s, before Major League Eating even existed. The contests weren’t as organized as they are now, but still featured contestants hastily devouring as many hot dogs as they could in an allotted time limit. In fact, the International Federation of Competitive Eating (now referred to as Major League Eating or MLE) wasn’t formed until 1997.

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George Shea works the crowd at Coney Island. | Paul Martinka

MLE was founded by brothers Rich and George Shea, who run their own media relations firm, Shea Communications. It all began when George judged his first hot dog-eating contest on the Fourth of July in 1988. The day was hot, he was hungover, and yet something about the atmosphere stuck. When the former producer of the competition died in ‘91, George decided to get involved. Afterall, it was a buzzy event for his client, Nathan’s Hot Dogs. “Nathan’s [hot dog contest] is genuine, but yeah, it started like a PR play,” Rich Shea explained to me over the phone. 

Though there were sparse eating contests happening around the country in the early ‘90s -- gatherings at fairs, informal challenges at restaurants -- it dawned on the Shea brothers that the sport lacked any real organization. “We realized there was no archivist, there was nobody sort of shepherding competitive eating, advancing it safely, maintaining its integrity,” Rich said. “There was no league. No governing body.”

Their opportunity to become pioneers in the competitive eating space was born. “I expanded the contest to a national circuit [with] seven events and qualifiers to come to the Fourth of July,” George said of the MLE’s beginnings. “We thought we could take it another step, so then my brother joined me and we created the International Federation of Competitive Eating as kind of a lark.” The International Federation of Competitive Eating turned into Major League Eating and attracted both competitors and viewers. 

What began as a humorous and good-natured series of small eating competitions sprinkled across the country -- some with hot dogs, others with oysters, some with Polish donuts -- devolved into an actual sport with a season, competitive circuit, and memorable star athletes. ESPN began filming the contests live in 2004, and have a deal locked in with Major League Eating that runs through 2024. A women-only division for the Nathan’s contest was set up in 2011. Athletes from Japan traveled around the world for a shot to be crowned champion, introducing new techniques that smashed world records year after year. “Everything we’ve done is because we just kind of thought it was funny, and then it turned out that it was really good,” George Shea said.

"As all food service industries make adjustments, so will competitive eating."

2001 was really the turning point. Takeru Kobayashi arrived on the scene and invigorated the competition, annihilating the world record of the time -- 25 hot dogs consumed in 12 minutes -- by doubling it and consuming 50. The feat was so shocking that the judges ran out of numbered signs to show how many hot dogs had been consumed.

“That really blew it up and then it moved from there. Prior to Kobayashi, we had two documentaries and a Fox special. [When] Kobayashi came on board and we sort of moved into a new era,” George Shea recited. Kobayashi dominated the competition from 2001 to 2006 with his signature move, the “Kobayashi shake,” a jump and twist that allowed him to make more space in his stomach. He won the Mustard Belt six times and seemed to be impossible to defeat until Joey Chestnut. 

Joey Chestnut is an unassuming person. Yes, he’s 6’1”, but he’s also soft spoken, the timbre of his voice gentle. “I was really, really shy [growing up] and a little bit ashamed at how much I could eat and how I never really felt full or satisfied,” he told me over a video call. Never would he have dreamed of having a career as a professional competitive eater; Chestnut initially envisioned a life working in construction after obtaining a degree in civil engineering. 

Then, one year, he and his brother watched Kobayashi down 50 hot dogs in one sitting. “My little brother’s like, ‘You know, you could do that.’ And I was like, ‘I could do it but it’s really weird.’” Chestnut had some stage fright. Eating in front of a crowd seemed mortifying, especially during his very first competition. Lobster was on the menu -- something Chestnut had never eaten before -- and “guts were flying everywhere. But eventually, I was like ‘Oh my God, I love this.’ I love pushing myself and I love not being ashamed of myself anymore,” Chestnut said. In 2005, he faced off against Kobayashi for the first time -- the very man he saw dominating on TV -- and lost. Two years later, in 2007, he was able to hold the Mustard Belt high in victory. The rivalry between Chestnut and Kobayashi was the center of ESPN’s 30 for 30, “The Good, The Bad, and the Hungry.” To this day, Chestnut continues to dominate the competitive eating circuit and is a 12-time champion of the Nathan’s competition.

“It wasn’t my goal to be a competitive eater,” Chestnut explained, “but I enjoy making people happy. I still feel like garbage leading up to a contest and after a contest, but… I get to travel, eat, win, make people happy.”

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Joey Chesnut wins the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest for the 12th time in 2019. | Paul Martinka

This is a common thread between the competitive eaters I notice: no one ever actually plans to use their unique appetite and translate it into a career path. It just kind of falls in their lap. 

“I always say that I didn’t choose competitive eating; competitive eating chose me,” Miki Sudo, who is the most decorated champion in the Nathan’s women’s league, tells me over a video call. “This establishment was offering $1,500 if you could finish a large, 12 pound bowl of pho. I thought it seemed like fun so I decided to give it a try without practice or preparation.” She was the first -- and only -- person to collect that jackpot and win herself a billboard displayed on the Las Vegas strip.

Don't underestimate Miki Sudo. Although she’s bubbly and stands at a mere 5’4”, she can hold down pounds of food. One by one, Sudo began collecting jackpots around the Las Vegas area and then the eating, in her words, “snowballed into a life of its own.” In fact, it was on the competitive eating circuit that Sudo met Nick Wehry for the first time, who she is now in a relationship with. “Who knew that I would find love while eating hot dogs?” Sudo asked with a laugh.

Wehry’s entry into the competitive eating circuit is a little bit different. He spent time as a competitive bodybuilder for seven years prior to becoming a professional eater, so he already had a grasp about the ways in which he could train and manipulate his body. It shows; Wehry’s arms are muscled, his shoulders wide. His appetite was enormous following bouts of restrictive eating throughout his body building years that his friends challenged him to enter a paczki-eating contest. The draw was a $200 cash prize and free donuts; he entered and won easily, drawing parallels to his own time as a bodybuilder. “We’re pushing our bodies as hard as it can be pushed for six to twelve minutes at a time,” Wehry said. “Whether or not that’s an athletic endeavor, I don’t know, but I would say physically we have to be able to push to an elite level.”

Though it doesn’t seem like it to the average person, there is joy to be found in hastily cramming food in one’s face. “It’s fun. My favorite part -- when my time at the table is done, whenever that is -- my biggest takeaway will be the people that I’ve met,” Wehry remarked. “I never would have been able to travel to Snowbird, Utah. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. [Miki] and I got to spend days in this beautiful landscape and then get paid to shovel bratwurst down my face. What makes it even more amazing is her and I getting to do it together.”

"I don’t know that I could imagine living in a world where there’s no Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest."

To have this community possibly lose its season and its vigor -- the same difficulties many other sports are struggling with right now in the midst of the pandemic -- is heartbreaking to the competitors and the fans.

“Major League Eating has always taken extra precautions in terms of sanitation and safety, having EMTs on site and knowledgeable food service handlers,” Sudo said. “So I think that, as all food service industries make adjustments, so will competitive eating.”

Thankfully, competitive eating isn’t a team sport that demands contact. Major League Eating has pivoted to hosting a handful of virtual eating contests. Competitors film themselves eating a quantity of food -- say, two pounds of bologna -- as fast as they possibly can. Though it seems similar to what happens at Nathan’s, the lack of crowd energy, the difference in food, and the speed as a marker of success over quantity changes the playing field. 

“If we’re just doing pure capacity, that’s going to play really well into somebody like Miki or Joey that is really going to be able to put it away,” Wehry explained. “If we were eating a food that’s maybe tougher to eat, like Moon Pies, Geoff Esper is fantastic at chewing and getting food down faster -- pure speed.”

“[There’s] technique -- hand-off coordination and really multitasking,” Sudo added. “I still don’t do that super efficiently; even with hot dogs, it’s almost like every move is orchestrated.”

And despite the larger uncertainties the pandemic still holds over our heads, Nathan’s Hot Dog-Eating Contest is being held this year -- even if it functions differently than it has in the past decade.

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Last year, the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest had 15 competitors. This year, to maintain social distancing, there will only be five. | Paul Martinka

“Like anything else, until we have a vaccine and things get back to semblance of normalcy, our presentation [will be impacted],” Rich Shea said. That means a crowd won’t be allowed to gather and watch the professionals go head-to-head on hot dogs. It also means this year, there will be only five competitors as opposed to the typical 15, to allow for greater social distancing. 

It’s a cause for disappointment among some of the competitors and presenters who look forward to the annual spectacle. “I enjoy seeing how my competitors are doing,” Chestnut said. “I enjoy talking a little bit of shit right beforehand,” he added with a laugh. 

Miki Sudo feels similarly. “Of course I’d love to compete in front of a bunch of screaming people in the crowd,” she said, “but I’m eager to start competing again, whatever that looks like.”

The competition will still air on ESPN for the 17th consecutive year, even if it’s much smaller in size. Nathan’s Famous is also partnering with Food Bank for New York City, donating 100,000 hot dogs and using the televised competition as a platform for raising awareness around food banks across the country.

“It’s a challenge because we are a league, like many others, rooted in bombast, pageantry, and celebration,” Rich remarked. “I don’t know that I could imagine living in a world where there’s no Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest.” Luckily, he doesn’t have to.

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.