George Shea didn’t invent competitive eating. Since the dawn of mankind, there have always been individuals who dared to push their bodies to the limits. But along with his brother Richard and partner Dave Baer, George did take the tradition of competitive eating — one in which local champions were crowned in small competitions across the country — and build it into an organized sport, one complete with rules, rankings and global influence.
A Boston native who was raised mostly in Maine in a family of five children, George graduated from Columbia University in 1986 with an English degree. He began working for Max Rosey and Mortimer Matz, a pair of New York public-relations veterans who were known for engineering publicity stunts and were partly responsibly for creating the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in the 1970s. In typical Coney Island pitchman style, George claimed the contest was an annual tradition dating back to 1916.
In the mid-1990s, George took over the publicity duties for Nathan’s and was able to dramatically increase the exposure and attendance of Nathan’s hot dog eating contest. Seeing a business opportunity, George and Richard founded International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) — which later changed its name to Major League Eating (MLE) — in 1997 to oversee, regulate and organize eating events and television deals while continuing to represent Nathan’s.
On July 4, 2001, the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest burst into the mainstream when Kobayashi doubled the existing record by eating 50 hot dogs in ten minutes, With the annual event generating worldwide coverage, ESPN began televising the competition in 2004, and at the center of the gluttonous spectacle each year is George Shea, who emcees the event and offers brilliantly-unique introductions for each competitor.
What was your childhood like, and how did it shape who you are today?
I grew up in Gardiner, a small town in Maine, and was very fortunate to have a great childhood. My older brother and I would spend all day on the weekends and during the summers with our friends in the woods. We made forts and had huge battles, and if we weren’t doing that we would play baseball, or go down along the river to place pennies on the train tracks. We moved to the slightly larger town of Bangor when I was 12, and junior high school was considerably less enjoyable. I spent most of high school driving around in cars with my friends, lowering the collective IQ of our nation through the quality of our conversation. To be honest, living in New York City has shaped me as much as my childhood did.
What did you learn from working with Max Rosey and Mortimer Matz?
Max and Morty knew that to be boring is the cardinal sin of promotion. Max was a great press agent and stunt man who once put an elephant on water skis to promote Palisades Park. Morty, likewise, was a great stunt man who read every magazine and newspaper possible and always knew the angle that would most appeal to a journalist. I learned from them that controversy and humor always sell. Any kind of controversy is great for media coverage, and we have been able use this approach to promote competitive eating and the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest.
One year, we listed Kobayashi as day-to-day on the eve of the world championship due to “jawthritis,” which is, of course, arthritis of the jaw. We brought in our dentist to examine him and got a lot of extra media. We also authored a scholarly journal article – complete with an addendum (a picture of a stomach) – called “The Belt of Fat Theory.” “The Belt of Fat Theory” postulates that skinny people are better positioned for success in competitive eating because fat acts as a belt, restricting expansion of the stomach. We submitted our article to the New England Journal of Medicine and when it was rejected we got a ton of coverage – CNN, etc. – about how the publication was elitist.
How did the opportunity for you and your brother to take over the publicity duties for Nathan’s come about?
Max died in 1991, and I took over the contest under Morty’s guidance. A lot of our clients were staid and corporate, so I spent far more time working on the contest than could be justified by the fee.
In 1993, we were enormously fortunate that the coveted Mustard-Yellow International Belt was returned to the United States. The only information that we had on the history of the belt was from the verbal archive of Max Rosey, at that point deceased. But based on our recollection of that source material we were able to explain that the belt had been lost to the Japanese for two decades, and that it was finally back on American soil. Gersh Kuntzman, then of the New York Post, broke the news, and significant media coverage followed.
In fact, word got through to Japan, and the following summer three Japanese eaters entered the contest to win back the belt. One of the eaters, the 120-pound Hirofumi Nakajima, beat America’s 300-pound champion, Ed “The Animal” Krachie. After that, there was a decade-long rivalry between American and Japanese eaters that significantly elevated the visibility of the contest.
In the early years of working for Nathan’s, what methods proved most successful for promoting the event and increasing attendance? Were there any marketing efforts that you thought would work but instead proved ineffective?
Some ideas work and some don’t, and many of the promotions we came up with in the early days failed to produce in the way we thought they would. At the same time, certain throw-away ideas caught fire and dramatically raised awareness. One time, my brother and partner, Rich, promoted a giant hamburger-eating contest by saying that the giant hamburger was bigger than David Hasselhoff’s head. He created an image of the burger next to an image of Hasselhoff’s head and we sent it all around. The media loved it and we got a lot of hits. There is a great deal of serendipity to promotion, and you really have to pursue all the ideas and angles you find funny or interesting. Attendance at our events increased as eater recognition increased. We are a celebrity-focused nation and, as the eaters became better known through media and TV coverage, more people began to come to the contests. At this point, eaters like Joey Chestnut are constantly stopped by people seeking selfies with him.
What inspired you and your brother to found the International Federation of Competitive Eating?
We began receiving a lot of requests from media on records and rules and other official information, and in 1997 we created the International Federation of Competitive Eating as a governing body and league. We now operate under the name of Major League Eating, which is more consumer-friendly. We keep track of records, rank eaters, publicize events and sanction eating contests for our sponsors.
What sort of preparation goes into your role as the emcee of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest?
Throughout the year I write myself notes when I think of things that strike me as dramatic or funny. Then, when competitive eating season begins in April with the Sweet Corn Eating Championship in Florida, I begin to formulate new introductions and stage material. I emcee about 10 contests before July 4, and I test new ideas at events. As the Nathan’s contest approaches, I begin focusing more on the content of the show, rewriting and refining the introductions, but it always comes down to the last few days. I end up memorizing the final introductions the night before and morning of the contest.
We have 15 or more male eaters and ESPN allots exactly 10 minutes for the introductions, so memorizing material last-minute for a live show creates a lot of unnecessary tension for me. Next year I am going to do it all earlier. After July 4th, I use variations of the new material at events in the summer and fall. Then the process starts over again in the spring.
ESPN began broadcasting the event live each year in 2004. How has the contest changed or evolved as a result of that partnership?
The power of ESPN cannot be overstated. It is a hugely powerful platform and it has brought enormous credibility to our event. ESPN and Nathan’s Famous have been a great partners, and OKG, the production company for July 4th, creates an amazing show. We get a very large crowd in Coney Island, but it is nothing compared the number of people who see the event on ESPN. My brother, Rich, hosts the show with Paul Page, and I always tape it to watch their packages and to hear my brother’s jokes. Rich and I are the front people for Major League Eating, but Dave Baer is our partner and he is the one who works with ESPN, with all our sponsors, and with other TV projects. He has expanded the scope of our league and made it much more powerful.
Since dethroning Kobayashi in 2007, what has Joey Chestnut meant to the sport of competitive eating?
For six long years America lived in shame, its honor in question as we repeatedly lost the Mustard-Yellow Belt to Takeru Kobayashi and Japan. No one thought Kobayashi ever could be beaten. We were a nation in crisis, and only one person answered the call. He was a boy, really, untested in eating, yet he assumed the responsibility of an entire nation and faced off with Kobayashi — and he beat him, then beat him again, and again. In my eyes, Joey Chestnut is not simply an American hero; he is America itself. Joey Chestnut is everything that is great about our country and our species. He will stand forever as one of the pillars that support our nation and its people. The rock on which he stands is not a rock; it is freedom.
Do you feel that having one dominant athlete such as Kobayashi or Chestnut is good for the sport, or would you prefer to see more variety in the list of winners of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest?
For a limited period of time, say three or four years, it’s great to have a dominant champion. After that it becomes increasingly difficult to sell a compelling narrative that the champion will be beaten by one of the other eaters. Kobayashi had a six-year run. Chestnut had an eight-year run. No one thought either would ever be beaten, but of course they were. Matt Stonie’s victory over Joey sets up a potential multi-year rivalry, and if Stonie eventually becomes a dominant champion, he too will be beaten one day by another young upstart.
From your perspective, what is it that sets today’s great hot dog eaters — Chestnut and Stonie — apart from the other competitors? Technique? Raw talent? Competitive drive?
All of the great eaters have the competitive spirit. They prepare for the contests by prepping with the food, understanding it and learning how to eat it most efficiently. However, it is the drive inside that determines who will win at the table. Chestnut and Stonie have that drive and much more.
What does a typical day for you look like?
I get up around six A.M. and have coffee, and most mornings I walk on the treadmill for exercise. I am talking aggressive walking – elevation at 4, speed at 3.9, Norah Jones pumping on the Beats Pill. It’s a Crossfit-style experience. Then I go to work and usually sit at my desk answering emails and talking on the phone all day, and also writing and editing press releases and pitching reporters on stories. When I’m out on the road, I prepare for the upcoming event in the morning. I go to bed early to be rested for my exercise regimen.
What’s the best meal you’ve eaten recently?
My wife, Jennifer, recently made gnocchi with marinara sauce and served it with a salad of arugula, tomatoes and bits of blue cheese. It was delicious.
What does the future hold for Major League Eating? Do you have any particular goals for the coming months or years?
In the old days, we often criticized the International Olympic Committee for its failure to include our sport in the games. We vowed that eating would one day be an Olympic sport, and we made it clear that we would even accept a spot in the Winter Olympics.
However, we have now established our own international platform, with contests around the nation and around the world, and we are pleased with the growth of the sport and the recognition of its athletes. As we look toward the future, all eyes are on 100th anniversary of Nathan’s Famous’ Fourth of July Hot Dog-Eating Contest, which will be an epic rematch between Joey Chestnut and Matt Stonie, who dethroned the eight-time world champion this past summer. That contest will be among the biggest sports days of 2016.