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One Hot Dog at a Time: Lessons in Media Mastery From Major League Eating

By / Jun 26, 2019 (Michael Tapp/Flickr)

The group behind the famed Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest has proven effective at drawing press attention on a yearly basis. The secret is in the spectacle, says longtime MC George Shea.

When Coney Island becomes the center of the culinary universe for a few hours during the Fourth of July thanks to Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, ponder for a few moments how the event has managed to drive so much buzz for decades.

Then consider that Major League Eating (MLE), the organizational body that puts on the competitive eating event each year, is basically doing the same thing every single week at smaller events around the country.

George Shea of Major League Eating. (Michael Tapp/Flickr)

George Shea, who you might know as the boater-hat-wearing master of ceremonies at the Nathan’s event each year, notes that while the events MLE manages vary in scope, they all follow the same spirit. Not familiar with “The World Hostess Donettes Eating Championship” or the “Fat Boy’s Pizza Eating Championship”? Those are just some of the contests that fill up the busy MLE schedule.

“We do these events all year round. In any given weekend in the summer we’ll be doing two or three events,” Shea said. “But Major League Eating, as an entity, not only organizes and sanctions these events, we publicize them. And we host them.”

Capitalizing on a Failed Study

Shea, who has been involved in the Nathan’s event since 1988 and took it over with his brother Richard in the early 1990s, notes that the group has become adept at drawing repeated press over the years for the Nathan’s event—including well before it was a widely televised event.

Its most famous example involved something called the “Belt of Fat” theory, spelled out in a scientific paper that argued that thin people were better at competitive eating than overweight people. The paper was submitted to the New England Journal of Medicine, where it was roundly rejected—which turned out to be a good thing.

“And then we used that rejection, you know, to get on CNN, and to get all kinds of stuff,” he says.

This year, lightning could strike twice; Shea said MLE is about to step into the well-known “Is a hot dog a sandwich?” debate with an in-depth research study.

Driving Local Buzz

While Nathan’s is certainly the biggest event on the group’s calendar, MLE’s work on events throughout the year is built around three elements, according to Shea: The big-name competitors, such as 11-time Nathan’s champion Joey Chestnut, create a natural draw for the event; the carnival-barker-like spectacle created by Shea, his brother Richard, and other in-house emcees; and the promotion, which the organization builds for the brands it features in its contests.

“You get a small, relatively regional brand, or a local festival, and they go, ‘We need something to bring press in advance. We need something to create buzz, bring people to the venue, and something that lingers on with buzz after the fact in addition to the press.’ And that’s our bread and butter,” Shea said.

This buzz factor sometimes leads Shea and other emcees to take part in events outside of competitive eating. Shea will be hosting a contest at the National Apartment Association’s Apartmentalize Conference in Denver this week.

Social Media Shift

Are there areas where Major League Eating thinks it could improve its press strategy? Shea points to YouTube, where the group has put much of its energy in recent months.

There’s already an audience for it: Matt Stonie, one of MLE’s contracted competitive eaters and the winner of the 2015 Nathan’s contest, has 8.3 million subscribers on the service.

“I remember talking to him six or seven years ago, and he goes, ‘I want to build this.’ And I said, ‘That’s great, you know, rock on,’ and he did, and I didn’t understand, at the time, the power,” Shea said.

While there’s room to grow, the group has had success stories, such as in 2017, when it had Eric “Badlands” Booker eat three live octopuses in a viral clip. That video has received roughly 3 million views since.

Shea admits that it’s a shift to put the focus on MLE itself, after years of putting that energy on the brands it promotes during these events. But he says that such a platform could help bring value to the events the group helps put on.

“Our clients want to be in the local NBC affiliate, and they want to be on the Today show, and they want to be on Fox & Friends … And that’s where we put them,” he said. “But clearly, social media has changed that and will continue to change.”

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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