"Every dime we raise here today," says a somber George Shea, pausing for dramatic effect, "is for Britney's recovery." Then his face blooms into a smile. No money will be raised today for Britney Spears or for any charity case. Shea, the charismatic chairman of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), is putting on an old-fashioned show with "top Coney Island talent." In two hours, the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest will be aired live on ESPN for the first time in its 89-year history. So what's really being raised is awareness and sales for Nathan's Famous, a Shea Brothers client.
George, 40, paces on a stage festooned with banners for Nathan's Famous hot dogs, Old Milwaukee Light beer, and Orbitz. Rich, his younger brother and partner in both PR and in the quest to make competitive eating a sport, will do color commentary on the ESPN show, which he is also coproducing.
Competitive eating, for the uninitiated, is a post-postmodern version of the classic county-fair contest, done up with all the trappings of modern sport: rules, rankings, majors, and personalities. The IFOCE organizes 70 annual events spanning oysters, Maui onions, pickled quail eggs, and, of course, Thanksgiving dinner. The hot-dog-eating contest? That would be its Super Bowl. Sports purists decry how baseball, football, and basketball have been corrupted with marketing messages ("Welcome to the Domino's Pizza halftime report!"), but competitive eating is a sport actually designed as a marketing vehicle. "This has always been a pure-play, free media-promotion game," says George.
What he means is that competitive eating is content — a vehicle to promote the brands that sponsor it. The Shea brothers imbue the sport with a generation-X brand of irony — "a wry, absurd, not unsophisticated kind of attitude," as George puts it — that gets the media interested. "They pick up the tone we present, but it's not about what we're doing onstage. All of those people are focused on the human-interest element of the athlete and the actual 12 minutes of the eating contest," he says.
According to the Sheas, Nathan's Famous, a hot-dog-stand franchiser with just $33.9 million in annual sales, has reaped 200 million media impressions in two years from the event. Pabst Brewing Co.'s Old Milwaukee Light signed up as a secondary sponsor to introduce its new packaging. "It's a fun, irreverent, economical way to appeal to our target audience," says Allen Hwang, Pabst's director of marketing.
And hey, it beats advertising. "A live show on ESPN, the Today show, CNN" — all featured the contest this year — "you can't even count what that's worth," says George. Actually, he can. In the conference room of the Sheas' Manhattan offices sits a printout with each media impression they've received and its media value, down to the dollar.
So while pandemonium reigns as George struggles to both emcee the event and direct what ESPN needs for good TV, it doesn't really matter. He can jump the order of his eater introductions to get Takeru Kobayashi, the 130-pound Japanese phenom and defending champ, on ESPN before it goes to commercial. (The red and white carnations thrown at Kobayashi as he's ushered onstage on a divan are a nice touch.) He can yell at the also-rans, "Guys, get off the stage," as he scrambles to assemble an awards ceremony before ESPN goes off the air.
"Even at a well-produced event," says Rich, "there's still a good level of mayhem." The home viewer never sees it though. "All you're really going after is that 30-second spot on the local affiliate," with beauty shots from the contest itself.
Oh, right — the contest. To no one's surprise, Kobayashi took the crown again. He also set a new world record: 53.5 dogs in 12 minutes. He won a year's supply of hot dogs and an Orbitz "travel package," and everyone had a good time. And yes, it was on the TV news that night. Everywhere.