Labor strife is rampant in the sports world these days. The NFL is in the midst of a lock out (that ultimately may turn out to not affect the season at all), the NBA just started a lockout that will likely cause the season to be delayed by at least a few months, if not get canceled altogether, and the NHL recently lost an entire season due to labor troubles. These are battles between labor and management that each earn millions of dollars a year through these sports.
What is not being discussed in the media, however, is a labor battle that is taking place in one of my favorite sports, the world of competitive eating. With tomorrow being the 96th annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, it’s an appropriate time to discuss what is going on, and how the gurgitators are being exploited.
Major League Eating/The International Federation of Competitive Eating is the sanctioning body for the major competitions in the sport (most notably the Nathan’s Famous 4th of July contest and Krystal Burgers square off, but also contests for broccoli, asparagus, oysters, cheesesteaks, donuts, and just about every other type of food there is). There are also “non sanctioned” contests that happen around the world. The top few eaters can make a living off their talents, while the vast majority have to maintain full time jobs.

This is where the dispute arises- Major League Eating now requires any participant in its contests to sign a contract that states they will exclusively compete in MLE/IFOCE sanctioned events, and that all endorsement contracts must go through their organization (where they would get a cut of the action). Previous contracts only required participants to agree to exclusivity in North America, and did not exert control over their endorsement opportunities.
Takeru Kobayashi (the Babe Ruth of competitive eating) is without a doubt the greatest eater of all time. His 6 year run as winner of the Nathan’s Famous contest is unparalleled; He still holds multiple world records, and had a run of dominance that is almost unmatched in any sport, with his only defeat in a 5 year period coming to a Kodiak Bear. His performances have led to him becoming a huge star in Japan, and have enabled him to receive endorsement contracts in his native country as well as the US.
The MLE/IFOCE contract would restrict his ability to earn a living, and as such he refused to sign it last year or this, and now fans are being deprived of watching epic battles between the current best eater in the world (Joey Chestnut of San Jose), and the greatest of all time. They were able to push one another to greater and greater feats, and it’s unfair to the fans, Chestnut, Kobayashi, and the rest of the competitors (most notably Patrick Bertoletti and Tim “Eater X” Janus). Without the best in the world as part of the competition, any wins are slightly hollow.
This contract dispute has become so nasty that I’ve read (unconfirmed reports) that they removed Kobayashi’s name from the wall of champions. Kobayashi was even arrested after last years contest for jumping on the stage when the crowd was chanting his name, knowing that he was in attendance.
I understand that the MLE/IFOCE is a fledgling organization, and that they are not a highly profitable operation. There has to be a way for them to allow their top eaters to earn a living worldwide, protect the integrity of the sport, and still turn a profit for the Shea brothers who own the company. In this dispute, I’m fully on the side of the eaters, who deserve better.

Tomorrow, as you all get up to watch the contest at noon Eastern (9 AM Pacific Time), and I’m sure you all will, Kobayashi will be holding a hot dog eating exhibition in New York to show that he still has the chops to be a top competitor. I eagerly await news from this event, and even if MLE won’t sanction his numbers as official, the people will know that if he out-eats Joey and the rest, then he deserves the mustard yellow belt.

I took these photos on my trip to New York City in July 2009 to watch the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.  I witnessed Joey Chestnut set a new world record of 68 hot dogs and buns (HDBs) in 10 minutes, while Kobayashi finished second with 64 and 1/2 HDBs.  Last year, without Kobayashi there to challenge him, Chestnut won with 54 HDBs.