Hunger Games: The Uncertain Future of Competitive Eating

The sport should worry that it has only one popular contest and one real star—who’s reached his peak.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

On Saturday, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut will attempt to defend his title in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. He’ll probably win, and if he does it’ll be his ninth straight victory—a feat of longevity rarely seen in any athletic competition. Despite being pushed hard by last year’s runner-up in the annual contest, Chestnut’s total of 61 hot dogs consumed was still notably better than the second-place contestant’s 56. By all accounts, Chestnut is the best in the world at what he does.

But his success in the contest masks a problem—he’s been so dominant for so long in Major League Eating’s flagship event that the sport has failed to give rise to a successor. MLE is synonymous with the Nathan’s contest, and the Nathan’s contest is Chestnut’s turf. Ironically, the sport that rewards competitors for focusing on a single food in any given contest may well be undone by its own myopic focus on Chestnut on the Fourth of July.

As Chestnut enters his early 30s, an age when most athletes start to decline, he’s easier to beat. But his vulnerability is a function of him regressing to the level of his competitors rather than rising up to meet a challenge, and that’s a problem. In a non-team sport, fans have to root for an individual, and that’s easier to do if there’s a viable challenger. Debating which of two athletes at their best is better is a time-honored and successful tradition, but promoting a formerly great athlete competing at almost as high a level relative to their peak? That’s a great way to alienate fans.

Putting aside the question of whether competitive eating is actually a “sport,” let’s at least acknowledge that there’s a significant physical component to it. Competitors have to train their bodies to quickly consume—and keep down—numerous  pounds of meat and nitrites (“reversals of fortune” are grounds for disqualification). If the last 35 years of competition are any indication, there are significant limits to human physiology when it comes to eating hot dogs.

As in any competition, upgrades in technology or technique can greatly influence outcomes, but once those optimizations are at their peak, there’s precious little wiggle room. When an athlete competes at the highest level in a mature sport, the distance between the best and worst competitor is diminishingly small. It’s why “Any Given Sunday”—the principle that the talent gap between teams in the NFL is so small that even the worst team can defeat the best in a single game—is a football axiom, but also why the worst NFL team would easily defeat the best college team.

This holds true for competitive eating, too. Prior to Takeru Kobayashi’s arrival on the scene in 2001, an eater could consume a couple of dozen hot dogs and have a chance at the championship. With Kobayashi, the 21st-century version of the contest became more of a science. Tactics such as separating the buns from the franks to increase efficiency and using liquid to soften the buns and hasten consumption saw wider acceptance. Having final totals in the range of 50 dogs might have guaranteed victory a decade ago, but that’s barely good enough for third place these days.

There’s no eating tactic that can yield the significant increases in efficiency witnessed at the turn of the century. When Chestnut defeated Matt Stonie 61-56 in last year’s contest, it was a simple matter of athletic prowess—yet it’s a difference of less than 10 percent, a far cry from the nearly 100 percent difference between the 2000 and 2001 winning totals.

Unfortunately for Chestnut, athletic prowess tends not to age well—especially in competitions requiring quick bursts of strength. Look at the major sports: Very few professional athletes are 35 or older because they simply can’t maintain the level of performance they had even a few years prior. It’s why so few long-term, free-agent contracts work out well for a team. They pay players for performance now, despite the fact that players won’t be able to maintain that level of excellence into their late 30s.

Data from most recent completed season in each sport. A player is considered a starter if they started at least 50% of their team’s games that season. Source: Sports Reference

Older competitors tend to fare better in endurance-based competitions such as marathons. Yet Chestnut’s not running 26 miles—he only performs for a rapid-fire period of 10 minutes, often in grueling heat. And he’s only 31, so he’s still probably on the right side of a competitive eating age-versus-performance curve. But he’s highly unlikely to get any better, meaning he may never break his own record of 69 hot dogs. And so before Chestnut falls off that curve and into his decline phase, MLE needs to cultivate a deeper bench of top performers or develop a series of other competitions to garner wider attention among viewers.

Consider that Chestnut is by far the most famous athlete under the MLE fold. Then consider his nearest competitors in recent years: Tim Janus, Matt Stonie and Patrick Bertoletti. Two of them are virtually unknown, and Stonie barely registers interest relative to the juggernaut that is Chestnut. The only competitive eater who comes even close to Chestnut’s fame is Kobayashi himself: a man who’s been banned from competition since 2010 and who’s also 37 years old. Even if Kobayashi and MLE mended fences, the sport would be welcoming back a competitor who’s past his prime, not planning for the future like it should be.

Ranks are relative to one another, not absolute. Source: Google Trends

The MLE could probably work around its lack of a Chestnut successor if it had a signature event besides the July 4 hot dog contest. The Nathan’s contest is to other MLE events as Chestnut is to other MLE eaters: It dwarfs them to the point of irrelevance. You need look no further than MLE’s own website to get a sense of how upcoming events are rated. Not only is the prize pool for the Nathan’s contest the largest, but it’s orders of magnitude larger than most other events. Only the Hooters Worldwide Wing Eating Championship (which Chestnut also wins) comes close in terms of prize money, but at barely half the purse.

There’s no comparison when it comes to media coverage, either. In recent years, the Nathan’s contest has been aired on an ESPN network, though in what should be a worrying sign for MLE, the only way in previous years to view the contest live has been on the web-only ESPN3. The television channels have taken to airing the event on tape delay. (This isn’t the case this year, though: ESPN2 will broadcast the men’s competition live even as the women’s competition is web-only.) Regardless, you’d be hard-pressed to find another competitive eating-event with any national coverage, to say nothing of coverage on a major carrier.

The MLE executive George Shea—the same man who gives the over-the-top intros at the Nathan’s contest—would be well-served to create a mystique around another eater or another event. To be sure, this is a difficult endeavor: The narratives for Kobayashi and Chestnut all but wrote themselves. The Japanese Kobayashi demolishing the previous record in an event held on Independence Day was the MLE equivalent of Sadaharu Oh joining the Yankees and hitting 120 home runs to leave Roger Maris and Babe Ruth in the dust. Which made the story of Chestnut, an American, reclaiming the title all the more alluring. During the brief period where Kobayashi and Chestnut competed head-to-head, MLE had a rivalry storyline to fall back on. There’s no such obvious narrative for a Chestnut successor, and with age starting to factor into the equation, perhaps the best MLE can hope for is a situation akin to the final movie in the Rocky series.

Regardless, Shea has his work cut out for him if he wants to ever have MLE approach mainstream sensibilities and be accepted as a sport rather than a showcase for freakishly dominant athletes. Joey Chestnut may well be the best competitive eater of all time, but that won’t matter in the relatively near future. All athletes peak and decline with age, and to put all of MLE’s eggs in the Chestnut basket is a recipe for MLE’s own reversal of fortune.