Inside the Big Business That is Major League Eating

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Fans, brands, and sports marketing professionals: Are you hungry for something different in today’s crowded entertainment landscape? We may have come across something interesting to whet your appetite.

While competitive eating may not be a sport typically on your radar except for this time of year, with the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest being a fixture in July, Major League Eating wants to make sure that those not already following know otherwise.

Major League Eating is actually a well-established, successful entity in the sports industry, capitalizing on the niche opportunity provided by a fringe sport like competitive eating by serving as the “world body that governs and sanctions all stomach-centric sports,” worldwide. (Translated: they regulate the sport of competitive eating, which is actually much larger and more popular than you might think).

Originally founded as the International Federation of Competitive Eating by brothers George and Richard Shea in 1997 to fill the void they saw created by the lack of any sort of organization to oversee and regulate the sport of competitive eating, the IFOCE was designed to bring order to what had quickly become popular competitions and great promotional opportunities. Fans and brands had gotten a taste with Nathan’s and others like Johnsonville Foods, La Costena (Mexican brand that produces canned goods like chili peppers and beans), and Hostess all wanted a piece of the pie.

The increased demand for the events and their popularity required some semblance of order, which is where the Shea brothers stepped in with the creation of the IFOCE. As more events were added to the slate and the general popularity grew — with major events making their way onto Fox, ESPN, and Spike TV — the organization recognized the name was rather clunky and rebranded itself in the early 2000s to the much more salient Major League Eating.   

With main offices in New York City, the MLE is not just limited to Coney Island in July; the league oversees roughly 80 events year-round all across the globe.

MLE Director of Operations Sam Barclay did agree that “our biggest event is obviously the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest every July 4,” but was sure to emphasize “our sport and business is actually much larger than that. We oversee different events throughout the entire year for a wide variety of food disciplines and sponsor partners.”

The rather unique league offers something radically different. They produce competitive eating sports events for host sponsors, working with their partners to establish a veritable structure behind what have become incredible marketing opportunities. MLE produces compelling events and content that give brand partners access to a voracious fan base. The league itself has thousands of enthusiastic followers on social media, with the eaters and events themselves all adding to the total with their personal followings.

“Our league is set up to conduct events in a safe, sanctioned, formal, and accountable manner,” Barclay stated.

They’ve worked to professionalize and legitimize the competitive eating sports space, “formalizing the rules; which we tailor from contest to contest depending on the food and objectives of our sponsor partners.”

To some, it may seem like a gimmick of a sideshow, but the league’s director of operations adamantly reinforced that “MLE is a sports league. We run competitive eating, and the people that come to compete in these events are real athletes with incredible talent and ability, and people follow the sport intently.”

That’s proven true, as Barclay pointed out the “global network of committed and passionate fans that follow the league on social media and via various video or TV coverage, attend in person, and our flagship events (like Nathan’s) continue to generate large-scale media coverage.”

Taking a look at the league’s website, you’ll also notice some pretty remarkable statistics. MLE events capture upwards of a billion consumer impressions every year. The Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest alone typically draws upwards of 300 million unique impressions and led the day in this year’s Cable TV Ratings. The league is proud to point out that its broadcast of the Fourth of July hot dog eating contest has consistently outdrawn any Major League Baseball game broadcast the same day.

The competitive eating events Major League Eating oversees and orchestrates “dramatic audience entertainment and an unparalleled platform for media exposure.” The league has roughly $400-500 thousand available in prize money up for grabs every year across the 80 events. 

Not only does the league enable the competitive eating athletes to reach an otherwise hungry and unfed fanbase, giving them a chance to effectively build their personal brands and reputations; it also provides interested brands and sponsors access to something unique and different in what may seem at times like an otherwise overcrowded sports and entertainment landscape.

Beyond that, while the league is dedicated first and foremost to fans and the sport, MLE goes to great lengths for their partners. It’s not typical in the sports world for a brand partner to have the level of control and customization that MLE and its events offer.

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MLE collaborates highly with its sponsors to tweak contest rules and design the events to provide a great sports experience tailored specifically to their partners’ specific business objectives. Events vary from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest to the Baked Bear World Ice Cream Sandwich Championship and the Wisconsin State Fair Cheese Curd Eating Championship. Each competition prominently features something that particular business partner is known for, with corresponding rules and a setup that makes sense.     

The sport of competitive eating and Major League Eating may not typically be on the main menu, but athletes, fans, and brands should take note, making the league part of their sports media — and marketing — diet.