When the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) launched ten years ago, most people laughed at the idea of organized bouts of giants gorging. Those folks are still laughing, but the “sport” gets more legitimate with every passing year: This past Fourth of July, more than 1.5 million people tuned in to see Joey Chestnut bring the Mustard Yellow Belt back to the States in Nathan’s Famous hot-dog eating contest. In anticipation of Sunday 16’s La Costeña “Feel the Heat” Jalapeño Eating Challenge at Plaza Garibaldi in Little Village, we caught up with Rich Shea—president of the international regulating body—to check the temperature of the sport.
The IFOCE was recently renamed Major League Eating. How did that come about?
It’s not a full rebranding, but we did it to coincide with our Spike TV shows [next airing October 18 at 10pm]. We think [MLE] strikes a better chord. And the contestants are major-league eaters. They’re on the circuit doing maybe 12 to 20 contests a year, making tens of thousands of dollars. It’s just kind of grown-up.
So, what’s the state of the sport these days?
You know everybody knows about Nathan’s—this year we had 40,000 people on hand at Coney Island. For the Krystal Square Off [the World Hamburger Eating Championship] in October, there’s $35,000 in prizes. The competitors themselves are different. The dinosaurs are the big guys of old. Now you’ve got a younger, more athletic guy. Hall Hunt won a Krystal contest this weekend, and he’s a surfer and runs 40 miles a week. A lot of these guys are cut and are in shape. We have a different breed of eater out there.
There was a little controversy with defending champ Takeru Kobayashi at the Nathan’s contest. Did he, uh, toss a few hot dogs?
In my call, from where I was sitting, it looked as though he had a “reversal of fortune” within the framework of the competition. I even said on the air that I thought that should be a DQ. The judges felt as if the competition had ended, and that the effluvia that escaped did not hit the table. Despite that, Joey [Chestnut] won fair and square with 66 hot dogs.
Can you tell us about a few eaters who are getting bigger?
Chicagoan Pat Bertoletti has risen—he’s No. 3 in the world. Tim “Gravy” Brown, a good dude from Chicago, is a total newcomer who placed second in a burger-eating contest and made it to the [Nathan’s Famous hot dog] Fourth of July in his first year. We’re harvesting our greatest talent from Chicago.
Where do you see the sport headed in the next five or ten years?
More competitions, more consistent television programs, larger prizes. I think you’ll see box scores in newspapers. I think someday you’ll have the competitive-eating beat reporter. And hopefully, someday we can do divisions just like baseball.
Watch the carnage or enter the fray to see how many peppers you can pop on Sunday 16.