Professional Pigs Gorge on Publicity

Heroes of Competitive Eating Seek Endorsement Deals and Reality TV Fame as Popularity of Unlikely Sport Grows


June 28, 2005 — Bob Dylan once sang, "Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king." The same could be said of competitive eating: Eat 10 hot dogs in 12 minutes and you're a fat slob. Eat 53 and a half, and you're an international TV star.

Takeru Kobayashi, the little man from Japan who casts a giant shadow over the international sport of competitive eating, returns to America this week to defend his hot dog crown at the July 4th contest, which will be broadcast live from New York's Coney Island on ESPN and ABC Radio networks, with yours truly serving as a commentator.

As the great gladiators of gluttony gather, the story is not Kobayashi. The four-time champ doubled the world's record of 25 frankfurters in 2001, and never turned his back. He set a new record last year, passing the 50-dog mark for the third time, and still, no other rival has yet to down even 40 dogs.

The story is not the fact that little skinny guys and petite women dominate the sport. The International Federation of Competitive Eating's top three gurgitators — Kobayashi, Sonya "Black Widow" Thomas and Rich "The Locust" LeFevre — weigh 130, 101 and 130 pounds — a combined total that's significantly less than the No. 4-ranked eater, Eric "Badlands" Booker, who tips the scale at 420 pounds.

In my opinion, the story now is that competitive eaters are becoming stars. They're already getting media attention most professional athletes would envy. Now, they're looking to turn gastric greatness into something more than mass media rubbernecking. Perhaps the champions of chomping may one day be gorging themselves on endorsements.

Already, the prize money is increasing. At next month's Alka-Seltzer U.S. Open of Competitive Eating — another ESPN event — 32 top eaters will compete for $40,000 in prizes. This is a major step away from the hot dog-eating contest, which offers the winner nothing more than bragging rights, a year's supply of Nathan's franks and a bejeweled yellow belt of undetermined value.