Mayor Bloomberg asked the right question Tuesday prior to Nathan’s Famous annual Fourth of July Hotdog contest: Who wrote this shit?Only instead of referring to his awful pun-filled speech, he should have asked it about Major League Eating’s contract stipulations.
Due to MLE forcing all competitors to sign restrictive contracts, former hot dog king Takeru Kobayashi can no longer compete, and fans are denied the spectacular bun-for-bun showdowns that took place for much of the last decade between him and reigning champ Joey Chestnut. But why?
Nathan’s Famous is easily the most, well, famous eating contest in the world, and for all essential purposes, it’s the only eating contest. Kobi used to be the undisputed hot dog king. In 2001, he crossed the Pacific and downed 50 hot dogs, nearly doubling the previous record of 25⅛, putting the contest on the map, and leading to its annual broadcast on ESPN. Kobi went on to win five straight contests with virtually zero competition. However, in 2006, American hopeful Joey Chestnut came within two hot dogs of taking the crown—something fans thought unthinkable unless Kobi’s stomach literally burst wieners all over the Coney Island pier. Suddenly we had a riveting patriotic showdown! The next year, Chestnut finally prevailed, in what may have been the most historic American sporting moment since we all believed in miracles.
The next two contests featured thrilling down-to-the-wire finishes between Joey and Kobi (including an eat-off in 2008!) in what was the most exciting time for the sport, drastically growing its national exposure. This is when MLE, the league that had partnered with Nathan’s since the 1990s, stepped in to capitalize. They wanted to make a nationwide league just like the ATP was for tennis and the PGA was for golf with the goal of making dozens of minor regional eating contests such as Chicago’s RIBMANIA “MLE-sanctioned.”
Anyone who wanted to compete at Nathan’s would have to sign an MLE contract. However, that contract stipulated that you could only compete in MLE-sanctioned events and endorse products MLE partnered with. Suddenly, Kobi would have to stop competing at dozens of small regional contests across the country and back home in Japan and also give up all of his endorsements (something the sport never would have dreamed of only 10 years ago.)
When he didn’t sign, Nathan’s banned him. Chestnut signed the contract, though, and now the American has easily won the last three years with little drama. Nathan’s, MLE, and most of the national media dubiously call him the hot dog king every year, even though Kobi stages his own simultaneous hot dog contest and regularly shows Joey up—to little fanfare.
If Joey were a man, though, he’d tell Nathan’s, MLE, and their contract (seriously, a sport that’s ostensibly relevant ONE day a year is banning its athletes from getting media attention it desperately needs?) to eat it and simply face Kobi mano-a-mano in some kind of annual event.
Sure, it’s an interesting idea that MLE wants to be what the ATP is to tennis or the PGA is to golf, but those are established sports with the same competitors week after week rather than mere local legends, known for more than one event, and have been around for centuries with a large international following.
MLE’s biggest competition is regional one-day eat-offs, which is because competitive eating will and almost certainly always will be a quirky sport where all the competitors have day jobs. Smaller events across the world shouldn’t have to bow to MLE’s contractual demands to become sanctioned.
A similar parallel is the World Series of Poker, which has one major tournament on ESPN but sanctions dozens of smaller tournaments across the country. However, the WSOP would never dream of forcing competitors to sign restrictive contracts, and players regularly play in non-WSOP events all over the globe.
Even in the pipe dream that competitive eating actually does become a popular sport with a following like golf or tennis, it can’t become fully sanctioned until it reaches that stage. But if MLE can’t realize this, then its only household name, Joey Chestnut, can force their hand.
I used to worship Joey for being the American who finally took home the Nathan’s belt after years of exporting it overseas, but now I just see him as a coward who hides behind MLE’s rules so that he can continue to call himself the hot dog king. The irony isn’t lost that it’s the Japanese star rather than the American who celebrates the true values of Independence Day every July 4.
Jim Pagels is a Columbia University student majoring in English and American studies. He was sports editor for the Columbia Daily Spectator and writes for Slate from time to time. He is allegedly the 17th-string point guard for the Dallas Mavericks.