By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Stephen Young
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Living in New York, Biller fell in with eaters like Janus and Conti, "Badlands" Booker and "Beautiful" Brian Seiken, and they'd all pile into a car for weekend contests up and down the East Coast. "The eaters go out and have a real party," Shea says. "Think of it from their perspective: These are largely young men who have made friends within the community...They meet in a new city, they make money, and they have zero responsibility relative to someone who has a family. In many ways, it is the life of a professional athlete on a much lower scale."
Along the way, Biller and other eaters would have long talks about where the sport was headed, and how it was growing—conversations he combined with his research to write a case study on competitive eating. He finished second in Lewisville last fall with an impressive 42 tamales, ate 4 pounds of catfish in Davenport, Iowa, but as he finished grad school, Biller moved to Queens and took a job overseeing ticket sales for the U.S. Open. Suddenly, in between contests, he was also working 70 hours a week. By spring he was the 18th-ranked eater in the world, but heading into the winter off-season, Biller dropped way off his training regimen.
After last year's Open, Biller moved back to Texas with his fiancée and took a job running group ticket sales for the Frisco RoughRiders. He'd end up working weekends as well, and had trouble finding time to travel to eat. From April to August, he entered only three contests.
He'd grown accustomed to serious partying on the circuit and living in New York, but he discovered that Collin County was no place to overdo it. In four months, he says, he was arrested three times for being drunk in public, for things he'd never worried much about before—pissing in the parking lot or passing out in bars. His fiancée took it more seriously, he says, got tired of bailing him out of jail and convinced him to start a rehab program. Again, his eating took a hit. "Drinking and eating kind of go hand in hand, if that makes any sense," Biller says. "When I'd get home from work, a lot of times I'd do a run of cabbages where I'd try to eat 5 pounds of cabbage as fast as I could...Instead of doing that, I was focusing on doing my steps, working with my sponsor, having conversations with my family. Not to say those things are bad in any way, but I just wasn't focused on eating."
After five years together, Biller and his fiancée split after the season ended. He quit his job and moved back to Wichita Falls to look for front-office work at a sports team in Texas or Oklahoma—something with weekends free, maybe even travel perks. He's keeping up his training, gearing up for next season. "I think from here through next year'll be my best stretch of contests yet," Biller says. It was a tough year for his eating career, but he's still by far the top eater in Texas. After all, he's the one the league chose to eat with Chestnut and Bertoletti at the state fair.
The format of that sandwich contest at the state fair may say the most about where the sport's headed. The state fair canceled its own corn dog contest this year, and instead the main stage is hosting a Jimmy John's "Eaters vs. Makers" race, an invitation-only event in which three pro eaters race to finish all the sandwiches three Jimmy John's employees can make in five minutes. MLE's been running these events for years and the eaters have only won once, but it ties the speed-eating brand in with the company's "freaky fast delivery" marketing campaign.
"There's a lot of change that's going to happen in the sport in the next 10 years," Biller says, but the league still only focuses on its biggest events. In the case study he'd written, Biller recommended a strong national NASCAR-style network to promote competitive eating. "We've got all these contests, two a weekend this whole summer," Biller says. "Those contests usually aren't on the news, they aren't on TV...But if we tie it all together, people would be more interested."
Shea, though, doesn't see the sport growing in fantasy leagues and live TV coverage. He says this was the year MLE really went international, with contests in Singapore, Canada and Japan. They sent Bertoletti on a barnstorming tour, guzzling Slurpees across Australia. "Where we are is as a brand promotion vehicle and a live audience event, and I think that's where you will see the growth," Shea says.
That's a very different thing from a budding sport's fans picking favorites among the eaters. Before this year's Coney Island finals, Nathan's decided to update its "Wall of Fame," covering up images of old-timers like Don "Moses" Lerman, "Hungry" Charles Hardy and "Badlands" Booker. "You can talk all day and night about a 50-year-old house-husband or a worker and so-and-so—there's no story. There has to be a narrative for the media," Shea says. "Sonya Thomas weighs 100 pounds and she can beat Joey Chestnut. End of story."