By Zach Campbell
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Nathan's Famous will have to adjust the countdown clock on the side of its flagship eatery — the chain's world-famous hot-dog-eating contest, soon to be in its 96th year at Surf and Stillwell avenues in Coney Island, has been booted from its usual time by ESPN's coverage of an elite British tennis championship.
The hot-dog-eating contest has historically been held at noon on July 4th, an hour that Major League Eating owner George Shea says is “prime time, high noon, the patriotic epicenter of the year.” It's the time when the world's toughest forget the sauerkraut and onions and indulge in a tradition that started with three guys settling a bet in 1916, and has now become the Super Bowl of competitive eating.
And this time, the contest, in which world-class eaters have 10 minutes to consume as many hot dogs as possible, is happening 3 hours later because at noon ESPN will be covering the Wimbledon tennis championship instead.
At first George Shea bristled at the idea that competitive eating would need to step aside for ESPN's coverage of the Wimbledon “Gentlemen's Quarter-Finals,” the hoity-toity tennis championship where the cheapest tickets cost $1,200 per day.
The decision was eventually made by the directors of Major League Eating (MLE), the organization that coordinates many competitive eating contests in the U.S., including the Nathan's Famous hot-dog-eating contest. Interest in the event, the directors say, has spread far beyond New York City — last year 1.9 million viewers watched it live on ESPN.
“It's outrageous that competitive eating would defer to tennis,” Shea fumed, explaining that the decision to push the event back was eventually made because of the contest's popularity outside New York City, and because it was part of a 7-year contract deal between Major League Eating and ESPN.
Still, Shea emphasized that competitive eating is a far superior sport to tennis. “It's more elegant and more enjoyable — it harkens back to the biological imperative of humans trying to survive,” he said. “It's part of the human spirit.”
Tim “Eater X” Janus is ranked by Major League Eating as the third-best competitive eater in the world. He currently holds the world eating records for burritos, tamales, ramen noodles and nigiri sushi, and at 5-foot-10-inches and 170 pounds, he's not exactly who you'd expect to be able to eat 4 pounds of tiramisu in 6 minutes.
“I was surprised,” Janus said, when asked about the schedule change. “It's tradition and history that we eat at 12.”
Janus explained the many complications that come with a later event. The heat causes the hot dogs to swell, and makes the competitors dehydrate more easily. Despite this, he welcomes the change. Competitors will be able to sleep later, and the afternoon heat gives the fitter eaters an edge.
“The heat affects the big guys a lot more than it does us,” Janus said, adding that the heat gives him an advantage over his 300- and 400-pound colleagues.
“The bigger eaters like 'Badlands' Booker or Bob Shoudt,” echoed George Shea, referring to two MLE competitors that weigh in at 400 and 275 pounds, respectively, “you put them in 90-degree heat and it's going to be much more difficult for them.”
Sitting the competition out for the third year in a row will be Takeru Kobayashi, the former world champion of hot dog gluttony. Kobayashi fell into contract disputes with Major League Eating, unwilling to give up exclusive eating rights to the franchise. In 2010 he was arrested after rushing the Nathan's stage on Independence Day in protest of his exclusion from the contest.
“We've reached out to him dozens of times, we'd love to work with him,” MLE owner Shea said of Kobayashi.
“But the world championship happens on Coney Island at Surf and Stillwell at Nathan's,” Shea added. “He knows that, everybody knows that. Joey [Chestnut] is the man to beat, not a ragtag collection of others."
Kobayashi lost three competitions in a row to Joey Chestnut, the current Nathan's champion and holder of the mustard-yellow belt. Chestnut is the world record holder, having eaten 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Unable to attend the event on Coney Island, Kobayashi is sponsoring a rival hot-dog-eating contest, the Crif Dog Classic, which will be held outside Roberta's pizza in Bushwick, also on the Fourth. The event starts at 11 a.m., so hardcore competitive eating fans could potentially catch both events.
But the Crif Dog Classic, at $10 a ticket, seems more geared towards the Wimbledon crowd anyway.