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Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Hot Dog PR Mavens Claim Joey Chestnut Beef Is All Real

  • Joey Chestnut is currently banned from the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest.
  • The PR executives behind the contest say they didn't intentionally gin up the drama.
Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Earlier this month, Joey Chestnut, the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, Impossible Foods, and Netflix blasted out a series of bombastic and punny updates. When the dust settled, a few things were clear:

  • Chestnut, the undisputed GOAT, would not be there on the Fourth of July this year.
  • He had new promotional deals with Impossible Foods and Netflix.
  • The Shea brothers, the promoters of the contest, said that they hadn’t banned Chestnut, and that he had banned himself with the Impossible deal.
  • Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi, his onetime rival, would instead be eating against each other in a one-off event on Netflix later this year.

It was a delightful story—and the media, Front Office Sports included, ate it up. Now, however, in the light of day, it seems fair to wonder: How much of this is real? After all, Kobayashi had just announced his retirement from competitive eating … in a Netflix documentary. 

And more to the point, the Nathan’s contest had become a sensation this century because of two brothers, George and Richard Shea, who both happen to be highly skilled New York public relations executives.

The Shea brothers, always available for a story, gave an interview to Grub Street in which they earnestly denied that the whole thing was one big work. In the interview, published Wednesday, George Shea explicitly compared the whole situation to professional wrestling but said he wasn’t the choreographer.

“In WWE, they write it; we don’t write it,” George told writer Chris Crowley. “Everything we do happens through the media. But this was inherent drama, and on a national scale, but we did not manufacture it, and we would not have manufactured it.”

George Shea is, in some ways, the face of the contest—even more than any one eater. That’s Shea in a straw hat and full carnival-barker outfit, belting out elaborate intros every year; there are endless compilations of Shea’s best work on YouTube. And as Chestnut’s dominance has become repetitive with eight straight wins, you couldn’t blame the Sheas for trying to shake up things.

Earlier this month, the Sheas said they were “devastated” to lose their biggest star. (Chestnut said Tuesday that he will instead be eating in a hot-dog contest on a military base in Texas.) But the Grub Street interview made it clear that they’ve been enjoying themselves since the news broke. “This has been a wild roller-coaster ride and it’s been really fun,” George Shea said. “We helped to create that interest over the years, kind of built the category, so you can’t really whine,” Richard Shea said of the barrage of media coverage this month.

Perhaps the most telling anecdote in the Grub Street story came from George Shea, who recalled an incident from the pre-fame era of the hot-dog eating contest, in 1989. That year, he says, an eater broke the rules, and the creator of the contest, Morty Matz, told George to have the cheater arrested, in Shea’s retelling. “He taught me that controversy and any turmoil created are very, very important if you are in the media.”

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