"The league's growth was not stunted by his departure, I'll be honest," Richard Shea says. "We always want Kobayashi to come back and try to win again, but we're also doing incredibly well." The ESPN audience for the Nathan's contest has grown nearly every year. Last year 1.9 million people tuned in to watch, and the current contract runs through 2017.
This is thanks in large part to the emergence of homegrown talent like Chestnut and 21-year-old Matt Stonie, both of whom happen to live in San Jose, California. To them and other competitors, Kobayashi is both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. Because while the eater elite may have figured out new and better ways of cramming food into themselves — and keeping it there — the concept of career longevity is still an alien one, and Kobayashi's exile hasn't exactly rallied his eater brethren to the cause.
"The younger you are, the more your body can tolerate this stuff," says Stonie, a rising star in the competitive eating world. (Currently No. 4
, to be exact.) Stonie, who recently set a world record by eating an entire 5.5-pound birthday cake in just under nine minutes, is at Mission College in San Jose, where he's studying...nutrition. "A lot of people think a nutritionist would be against what competitive eaters do, but it helps to understand how the body works. I'm training like any other athlete would train for a sport. It's just repetition, increasing stomach capacity. I'm in the best shape of my life. No one has really done studies on competitive eating, no one knows what works, so most of training is either word of mouth — which you're getting from your competitors, so you have to take with a grain of salt — or just finding out what works for you. There's no resources because MLE doesn't want anyone to have anything to do with home training."
Therein lies the question that is in many ways the root of Kobayashi's dispute with the league as exposure and revenue increase: Does the MLE have an obligation to look out for the best interests of individual eaters, or do the eaters serve at the pleasure of the governing body? The Shea brothers need to tout competitive eating as a sport to bring in fans, sponsors, and money, but that suggests the athletes train, which is a liability. "I'm not a big fan of training," Shea says. "I don't want someone in their basement eating a bunch of hot dogs." MLE does not provide insurance for their athletes; they buy insurance for their events and have paramedics standing by. Calling it a sport might also mean acknowledging that this is a proper career for the athletes, that the eaters' lives are not normal, and that the money they make needs to support their routines full-time.
"I bet if you talk to the balance of the eaters, they are doing it for fun," Shea says. "For many people it's about the thrill of the event, being on TV, and getting a crowd reaction, because day in and day out your life is like normal."
But even to a relative newcomer like Stonie, that's already not the case. To him, "going pro" means, "You earn a good amount of money, you travel, and you just don't do it just for fun anymore," he says. "I love doing what I do, but I put myself through a lot of stuff to get where I'm at."
As the top-ranked eater in the league, Joey Chestnut makes enough money through MLE appearances and contests (about $160,000 in 2012 and $220,000 in 2011) that he was able to quit his job in construction management; he believes all this gives him a distinct advantage to remain top-ranked. "I'm able to put all my time into it," he says. "Whether I'm drinking water in the morning, fasting, protein supplements, my diet is 100% dedicated to my practices." Chestnut goes into each practice with a completely empty stomach, having fasted for two and a half days — just a half gallon of water and a half gallon of milk to stretch the stomach muscles. This is not the kind of lifestyle he envisions long-term.
"I'm turning 30, and this year was definitely harder than four years ago," he says. "I really have to develop an exit strategy." He's working on opening a beachside hot dog bar with a friend in Clearwater, Florida. "It's a lot more work than we thought it would be, but we got the menu done, Nathan's is on board, and I love Nathan's hot dogs." If that doesn't work? "I'll go back to construction management. I mean, I still lead a pretty normal life, other than the travel. There's people in the world who work harder than me who get paid less. In the grand scheme of things, we're going onstage and eating."
Unlike his would-be archrival Kobayashi, Chestnut has no problems with his MLE overlords and understands that his particular skill set might be of little use without them. "They run decent events, they do all the work, they find sponsors — I don't want to find sponsors. I'm a competitive eater, I'm going to go there and eat. I kind of agree with [Kobayashi] to a certain degree: He doesn't want someone to tell him what he can and can't do. But I don't know exactly what freedom he is really looking for. He really hasn't done that much since he left — a couple Guinness things, competing against nobody, competing against himself. Nathan's was a big part of his life, and I'm surprised he'd try to make it seem like it was small."
Stonie, who started his career after Kobayashi left and thus has never competed against him, is also less than awed by the ex-champ's legacy. "He obviously changed the sport, brought it into the mainstream media, and he's great for that," he says. "But the truth is, Joey beat him three times in a row. He's a great eater, I respect him, but I don't think he's the best."
Chestnut would like to see the conflict reach resolution — for the good of the sport. "It would be the best thing for him, for me, for competitive eating," he says. "You can only be so angry for so long, you gotta move on."