"We get plenty of media," said Mr. Shea, who in 1997 co-founded the International Federation of Competitive Eating with his brother George. "We drive incredible consumer impressions through free media placements-literally hundreds of thousands of impressions for our sponsors."
So he's frustrated that this booming subculture, albeit an underbelly of sports, can't land a sponsor that isn't an internet poker site (GoldenPalace.net) or casino (Harrah's). Sure, regional brands such as Johnsonville brats have long been associated with competitive-eating contests, but not Oscar Mayer, Oreo, McDonald's or KFC. Even edgy brands like Axe that aim for the much-coveted young male demographic are nowhere to be found.
Big Brands steer clear
"Do I bang my head against the wall and say, 'Why aren't these guys coming along for the ride?' Yes," said Mr. Shea, who launched the IFOCE via his public-relations firm, Shea Communications, in part to help longtime client Nathan's Famous hot dogs. Before the fear of litigation for trans-fat-laden products and the endless critiques of the fast-food industry's complicity in the obesity epidemic, those brands had no qualms about associating with one of the seven deadly sins.
Decades-old newspaper accounts of eating contests at McDonald's and Burger King were documented in the book "Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream" by Jason Fagone. Most notable is an account of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff organizing a "Quarter Pounder-eating contest at a McDonald's, with some proceeds going to the American Cancer Society."
No more ESPN prime time
Yet, despite the free media impressions, the potential political backlash remains too high for most. Verizon managed to get away with sponsoring a six-city buffalo-wing-eating tour dubbed the Verizon Wing Tour, although the company declined to discuss results. Bayer's Alka-Seltzer withdrew its sponsorship as the "official antacid of the IFOCE," and the Alka-Seltzer U.S. Open of Competitive Eating likely will never air again in prime time on ESPN, as it did in July 2005 for three days.
It's ironic since this is a "sport" with newfound credibility, thanks to a full-length feature in Sports Illustrated, not to mention the fact that for years its biggest event-the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island-has been broadcast live on ESPN, with 1.1 million households tuning in during the final 15 minutes of last year's contest.
Old Milwaukee and Orbitz both paid for signs on the eating stage at last year's Nathan's contest, but Mr. Shea can't pull together a sponsorship deal above five digits.
Hamburger eating championship
That's just fine for Brad Wahl, director-brand marketing at Krystal, a burger chain with 432 locations in the Southeast. He reaped media impressions that topped out at 220 million in year one, jumped to 300 million last year, and will be who knows how high this Oct. 28 for the World Hamburger Eating Championship, also known as the "Krystal Square Off."
As for Nathan's, the ever-increasing attention given to the Coney Island contest -- widely considered the biggest event in competitive eating -- has helped catapult a lone hot-dog stand in 1916 Brooklyn into 200 locations with distribution in 7,500 U.S. supermarkets and club stores and systemwide sales of $300 million.
So is Nathan's President Wayne Norbitz worried another brand could steal the show? "We worked hard to develop and own something that has a cultish appeal that can't be bought by others," he said.