By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
As IFOCE reached new heights of marketability, other contests sprung up around the country at state fairs, strip malls and roadside bars—anywhere a showboating promoter might want to draw a crowd. The Sheas tightened up regulations about eaters entering non-sanctioned contests; top competitors signed contracts pledging their exclusivity to the federation. "It's a very simple equation," Shea explains. "A sponsor is not going to pay money to someone who is literally going to go out the next day and promote a rival brand. They just wouldn't do it."
A rival league grew out of the discord, the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, led by folks who called Shea's eaters elitists and corporate shills. But without a little of the slick federation treatment, an eating contest could quickly devolve into even more of a crass, carnal spectacle. For a time, IFOCE sent its eaters to Wing Bowl, a Philadelphia contest founded by two radio shock jocks in the early '90s, but it was too much a blue-collar, gut-bumping rodeo of depravity—with judges who played too fast and loose with the wing counts—for the Sheas. The epithets hurled at Korean-American Sonya Thomas could have been right at home on talk radio, but they didn't fit the IFOCE brand.
With the IFOCE, sponsors knew what they were paying for with the fees and prize money they ponied up. Shea says that, on top of covering the cost of food and prizes, it costs sponsors an amount equivalent to a small newspaper ad campaign to host an IFOCE-sanctioned contest, promoted through their agency, featuring their eaters and called by a league official. "The sensibility that we bring to the mic is wry, it's comedic, it acknowledges the absurdity without undermining the drama. So it works with multiple different crowds," Shea says. "The media was very receptive to the tone of what we're doing. In a way, it showed that we're not out here doing this adolescent gross-out thing."
In 2004, Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating introduced the film festival circuit to the sport, featuring Conti, a New York window washer, nude model, day manager at the Penthouse Executive Club and a competitive fan who became one of the sport's top performers. The Nathan's final aired for the first time on ESPN that year. Younger, fitter eaters rose to the top of the pack, like Thomas, a hundred-pound Burger King manager, and Tim Janus, a Southern Methodist University grad who split time between a pizza shop and a day-trading operation—more compelling characters for reporters, and prettier faces for reality TV. Two separate competitive eating books came out in April 2006, and by the time Joey Chestnut debuted that summer, finishing just two shy of Kobayashi's 54 hot dogs and buns, competitive eating looked a lot like pro sports.
Ryan Nerz wrote one of the historical records of the sport's mid-decade explosion, Eat This Book, an official IFOCE history covering a year of his emcee work. Nerz says there's no easy analogy for what the Sheas have done, inventing competitive eating as a sport and running such a monopoly on its market, growth and personnel. "It's Vince McMahon meets Stephen Colbert meets the Ringling Brothers," he says. "All within a slightly smaller, esoteric realm."
The Sheas decided the sport had moved past the faux-epic sensibility of the IFOCE and built a new brand around its new identity: Major League Eating. "It's consciously marketed as MLE because that's where it is culturally, that's what people think about it," Shea says. "They don't think about it as Ed 'Cookie' Jarvis driving 25 hours with Kevin Lipsitz and dogs in the car to go to a french fry eating contest somewhere. That's not where we are right now. Where we are is, Joey Chestnut is an extremely marketable national figure, and you have really good brands, major brands like Pepto Bismol, that are on board, and it's a whole different level."
This was the competitive eating Nate Biller first encountered in the fall of 2006, and though the eating records have skyrocketed and a few of the faces have changed, it's largely the same sport a new eater would find today. The old Coney Island hucksterism was still in there, but now as just one piece in a complex ecosystem of corporate promotion, self-promotional antics and honest athletic struggle.
A government and politics major at Georgetown, Biller had moved back home to Wichita Falls after college and an uninspiring internship with North Texas Congressman Mac Thornberry. While he was living back home, he strung together a three-year winning streak in the Beanie Burger eating championship at the town's Texas-Oklahoma Fair. In 2006, he set a record that still stands today, eating six of the giant burgers—each more than a pound, covered in refried beans, Fritos, cheese and jalapeños—in just six minutes.
A friend suggested he try himself out against some tougher competition at the Lewisville tamale contest in early September. Janus was there in a blue IFOCE soccer jersey and blue face paint. Rich LeFevre was there in his trademark Hawaiian shirt. Janus ate 51 tamales, and Lewisville Mayor Gene Carey handed him $1,500.