Every Independence Day for the last 100-some years, the masses gather at the original Nathan's Hot Dog stand in Coney Island to celebrate the restaurant's annual hot dog-eating contest. This year, however, the Contest is going through a massive overhaul as a direct response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Though it will still be held, it will be take place in a secret location kept under wraps so as not to attract a crowd.
Luckily, the contest will still be broadcast live on ESPN, even though it will look much different to those who have watched in years past. Each of the contestants will be separated as per normal social distancing guidelines and will have a piece of plexiglass between each other.
Instead of the 15 to 20 contestants that usually compete, both divisions — the men's and the women's — will have upwards of a third of the athletes the contest normally includes. We recently had the chance the catch up with Major League Eating commissioner George Shea to talk about this year's contest and other news within the world of professional eating.
Keep scrolling to see what Shea says about this year's contest and the future of Major League Eating.
Best Intros in Entertainment
ComicBook.com: Where should we start? I guess this is your busiest week of the year, right? Keeping up with everything, all right?
Yeah, well you know what happens is I always want to get my introductions and the elements of the show on the 4th of July organized. What happens is we get into the week before and all of the media just starts crashing in and more important things come, and then it's a late night before the fourth.
Let's talk intros. I was looking at these the other night. I just kept scrolling through YouTube looking through intros and intros and intros and commenters would say they had goosebumps and the "This is best entertainment," and stuff like that.
Do you write them all the night before? How much thought goes into the process? I mean, are you thinking of Joey Chestnut's intro for the entire year, as soon as the contest is over? Tell us a little bit.
In a best-case scenario, I am thinking about Joey Chestnut's intro months in advance and, you know, that's my favorite one to write. I write them all, obviously. But, you know, you're looking for a mix of grand, comedic, sort of virtual, and then like the epic Joey Chestnut interview. But, you know, what happens is I am usually struck by something and then I work off that and think about it and write them there.
This year everything was so messed up that I really got at it very late and I have not memorized everything yet, but I have written a Joey Chestnut intro. I think it's close to where I want it, I don't know. Is it as good as some of the past ones? We'll see. I'll have to bring a lot of energy to make sure it happens.prevnext
Absolutely, so obviously you bring up how everything's messed up this year. Of course, that's to say the least, right? Was there ever at any point where you and the team had considered you might have to pull the plug on the whole contest this year? Was that never in contention?
In my mind, no, it's interesting. I mean, I can't speak for Nathan's or my partners, but it was never an issue that that was gonna happen for me. I'm in my backyard right now. I live in Brooklyn, I have a little backyard. I would have done it with Joey right here. And so had we had to do it virtually, Joey in his basement, we would have done it, that's my view.
We're somewhere between that, you know, Joey in his basement and the real thing, right? Because we're doing it in essentially a warehouse space, 90 feet by 50 feet, 12-foot ceilings, an old 100-year-old building.
You know, me on a platform, six feet back from these guys who were all distanced by six feet. Is it gonna be a mess? Yes. Are you gonna get that vibe? It won't be quite the same. But ESPN is extremely talented. And I think what they're gonna do is they're gonna try cut back to the footage of last year. So if I'm introducing Joey and you start off on Joey or me, but then you cut back to last year, you get a little of that energy, I think that could be effective.
Totally, totally. Let's talk about format this year. You said, "Everyone's going tobe socially distanced," and all that stuff. I think typically there's a 10 to 12 participants, right? But that's being reduced this year.
Right, so usually about 10 to 12, 13, 14 women, and somewhere between 15 and 20 men. This year, we're gonna do five women and six men. Each one of them will be separated by six feet, we'll have plexiglass in between each participant, I will be back six-plus feet, and we're gonna follow every rule we can, right?
And, you know, we have a very limited number of media, so we've had an enormous number of inquiries from media, but we can accommodate maybe six cameras, six TV cameras, six reporters, and that's what we're gonna do. We may have an overflow area downstairs if people just show up without an invite, so we can maybe accommodate them. But it won't be the same. But it's happening, right? So versus not doing it, we are doing it.prevnext
Absolutely, absolutely. It's a tradition, right? It's how many years going on now? I mean, the contest has been around 100 plus years, right?
So, yeah, according to our archives since 1916. I've been doing it since 1988, and my former boss — that's where I started on all this — had done it from 1972. So it's just generations and generations and generations. We had many, many, many dozens of Twitter, and direct messages, and emails, "George don't cancel, don't cancel." And that's where I was.
But then there's another issue which is what is the mood of the nation? Can you do this in a way that is not insensitive to the fact that we're in a crisis and the crisis by all accounts, doesn't seem to be going away? So what we've done this year — and these are things that we always do anyway — but we really dedicated the contest this year to highlighting the service and acknowledging essential workers.
So we're gonna have essential workers as part of this whole thing, and food banks, raising awareness for food banks. I would encourage anyone, even if it's 10 bucks, I mean, honestly, give 10 bucks to a food bank. Food banks have been hurt very badly by this crisis. And this is a time when people need food banks more than ever, the demand is up. So what we've tried to do is use the platform to support those two elements, because this is a fun event. People want a fun event, but we're also in a serious time, so that balance has been actually difficult.
You know, say obviously people should be social distance and stuff, but there's still going be the backyard barbecues, there's still going to be these get-togethers. Say John Doe wants to challenge his neighbors to a hotdog contest while it's on TV. What do you suggest? I mean, you just said you've been involved with this in decades. How do you think Mr. Doe can come out on top?
So that is a good question. So let me go right to the legal language. Don't do it unless you have an emergency medical technician, unless you're over the age of 18, don't do it if you've been drinking, right? Those are the things I would say. In fact, what we always say is, "Look, if you wanna try competitive eating, the best thing to do is to come to one of our events because they're always a lot of safety measures in place, we always do it with a paramedic."
But look, what are the tips? What are the things that people have to think about? What people don't realize is that if you're doing a 10-minute contest, the wear on your jaw is really...you will get jaw fatigue. I mean, honest to God. I mean, I know that sounds silly, but it's true. So they have to get used to being able to chew, like at that level of intensity for 10, 12 minutes.
Also managing the food, right? So especially with hotdogs, there's a bun, there's a hotdog. Generally, the fastest way it seems is to separate a hotdog from bun, dip the bun while you're eating the hotdog, then as you're grabbing a hot dog, eat the bun.
That kind of component of managing the food is really huge. You have to have stomach capacity, but you also need those other elements. One thing I would say, and this has happened, I've been doing this so long. You go to an event, some guy comes up, he goes, "I'm gonna win this event. Baby I can eat six, eight, 10 slices of pizza, get ready to make me the winner," And then you're, "This guy's last." Right, it's not easy. So that stomach capacity is really something that a lot of people don't have.prevnext
The Champ Has Arrived
Luckily Joey made it at a time, right? Because there was a travel ban in place from certain States, but I think Joey got in in time, is that correct?
We've been getting killed on this. So there was a travel ban, I think about a week and a half ago, put in place on Texas, and I think Florida, meaning you'd have to quarantine for two weeks coming into New York. New York had a lot of that months ago, and now New York's doing that to a lot of other places that's been less cared for. So when that happened for Texas, my partner Dave Behr — very smart guy — like I wasn't thinking about this, he goes, "We're flying Joey in tonight." And Joey got on a plane that day, he's been here for a week and a half or whatever and he's been quarantining.
And so we got Joey in before the California ban happened, because we thought it's possible California could be banned. Then in the meantime when that happened, we lost Michelle Lesco from Arizona, and we lost Matt Stonie from California, and we lost Gideon Oji from Georgia, so it's been like this devastating thing.
And here, by the way, I had my introductions written and there was, "Oh! You know, back to the drawing board," so God help me if there are any good this year. But yeah, so we were very lucky or not... We were not lucky, Dave Behr was smart and we got Joey in before that happened, but we did lose some folks.
Absolutely. And in the world of professional eating we're talking top five ranked eaters, right?
Yeah, so Matt Stonie is ranked number three, Michelle Lesco is the second-ranked woman in the world, Gideon Oji number six. It's very, very difficult to lose them. But we do have great eaters, Darron Breeden ranked number four in the world is really, really a top eater, Geoffrey Esper ranked number two lives in Connecticut. You also have Nick Wehry from Connecticut, so you do have a lot of talent coming in.
And if anyone was gonna test Joey, honestly, it would be, I think Nick Wehry and Darron Breeden. So having those two is really critical for the quality of that contest. Matt Stonie one of the greatest champions of all time and a superstar, he has 12 million followers on YouTube, right? He's a celebrity. But if you had asked me just as a fan, "Is he gonna beat Joey this year?" I doubt it. Right, so could Geoffrey? Yes. Could Darron? Yes, so that is in place.prevnext
I mean, what's Joey feeling like, is he feeling pretty good all things considered?
And another really interesting question, what are some of the components that go into play here? No live audience driving him, even though I will be screaming. I will have a mask on and I scream and yell, and I will call down the heavens, but I don't know if that's enough. We won't have the crowd, but also he's in a temperature-controlled environment where the sun hasn't been beating down on him or the hotdogs, does that make it easier? I don't know.
He hasn't been at home preparing like he typically prepares, he's been in a hotel room quarantining in New York, what does that do? I think it would be very difficult for me to handicap, so I won't. But I think there are a lot of components here that make this unlike other years. If we were doing this year exactly the same, no COVID right? Where we're getting ready for July for maybe some rain thunderstorms, really hot. I would say you're looking at Joey in that 74 range plus or minus, right? I could not tell you that this year, could he go 78? Is he gonna go 68? No idea.prevnext
Future of the Sport
You know, Major League Eating is more than just the Nathan's Hot Dog Contest, right? I mean you have competitions all around the world for all different sorts of foods. Have you started thinking about how this is all going to impact the future at all? I know you guys had had that virtual event earlier this year, but post-Nathan's Hot Dog Contest, how do you guys plan on moving forward?
Well look, it's sort of a double-edged sword. We have been knocked down from this year, call it 45, 50 events to three, that's where we are, so I would call that insignificant reduction in everything. And I don't know, maybe it's a little bit more than three, but our roster of events has been cut. At the same time, we have gotten more inquiries than ever and I think some of it came from when we announced that we were doing the event no matter what, that really touched a nerve. And it got a lot of press and a lot of people said, "You know what? rock on." And I've gotten tons of calls and we hand them off to Sam on our team who manages that.
But lots of people have contests — barbecue, chicken wings — and so will they happen this year? I think next year. So I think that what happens is we have to get to 2021, I think in order to do what we do best, which is to hold a live event where people go, "Ww, I wasn't expecting that, that was exciting, that was hilarious, I'm coming back next year."
That's kind of what we deliver, this stealth product where everybody goes, "Is Joey coming in? Are the top eaters coming in to eat big numbers?" And then they go wait, "That was really fun, the whole thing." That requires a live audience, that requires 2021, and really honestly, that requires a vaccine. So I think we are going to be doing virtual events, but when you do a virtual event, now you're talking about eating proper, right? You're gonna get me in the hat, you're gonna get Richard commenting and being the host, but you're not getting that vibe of the energy of the crowd. But we will be doing virtual events, but [returing to live events] a 2021 play, I think.
Coverage for this year's Nathan's Hot Dog Contest begins Saturday, July 4th at 12:00 p.m. Eastern on ESPN.
Cover photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images and Steven Ferdman/Getty Imagesprev
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