I have to admit something to you all as I start writing this piece – I love to gamble. Since I was a small boy, I always found something to bet on; card games, flipping baseball cards, who could hold their breath the longest, if there was something I could bet my allowance on, I was doing it. Imagine my surprise when I found out that I could be in the betting industry as a career! I quickly found my place, but along the way, I came across some incredible sports and events that I could bet on. In this series, I am going to cover a few of these, and since it is the holiday weekend, I thought I would start with the jewel of the “Odd Bets” crown – Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest.
I grew up in Canada, and while we have our own bizarre traditions, the first time I heard about this hot dog eating contest, I was instantly intrigued. How impressively American, I thought, to have a contest to see who could eat the most hot dogs in one sitting! The contest has been going on for over a century, but it wasn’t until the last 25 years or so that it became the worldwide phenomenon it is today!
The event takes place at the Nathan’s Famous hot dog stand in Coney Island, New York. As you would expect, the contest is pretty simple: eat as many hotdogs as you can in 10 minutes, without throwing any of it back up. OK, look…we have all eaten a hotdog or two in our lives. Sometimes, we might even be hungry enough to think we can polish off 5 or 6. What you see at this contest is outrageous; we’ll get to that in a second.
What drew me right in as a viewer and a gambler was the first time I found out this event was televised. Not only was it broadcast, but it was front and center on ESPN in the U.S. on the 4th of July! Again, how American to make this eating contest a sport! When I got into the gaming industry in the late 1990s, the first thing I looked for was a sportsbook that would take a wager on the winner of the event. There weren’t many options back then, but I did find one or two places that would take my money.
I know what many of you are thinking right now: this cannot be serious, can it? Well, let me assure you, it most certainly can. Furthermore, there is an entire underbelly of the U.S. that is involved in competitive eating. There is even a sanctioning body, Major League Eating that manages these events and controls the official record books. If you don’t have a weak stomach, I encourage you to read the records of the competitive eating world.
Ok, now that you are back from the brink of vomiting, let’s get back to the story. The event was dominated in the late 1990s and early 2000s by a Japanese contestant, Takeru “The Prince”/”The Tsunami” Kobayashi. In fact, he was crushing the competition each year, making betting on the winner very pricey. The best bet to make was an over/under bet on the total number of hot dogs eaten by the winner of the competition (up until 2008 each contestant had 12 minutes instead of the current, more humane 10 minutes). The record was 26 hotdogs in 2000, but then something happened. A seismic shift in competitive eating occurred in 2001, when Kobayashi LAPPED THE FIELD, eating a then record 50 hot dogs in the contest. The competitive eating world was shocked; the betting world also felt the effect. The next year, the totals went way up, but was this just a one-off result, or was there something about this guy we didn’t know?
Well, like many dynasties in sports, whatever was working for Kobayashi kept working. He won the next 5 years, with totals of 50.5, 44.5, 53.5, 49, and 53.75 each year respectively. But, something was happening in the background…the competition was inching up on him each year. As they closed the gap, it seemed that Kobayashi was going to actually have to try in one of these upcoming years to retain his title… but each year he still came out the champion.
Major League Eating
By the time 2007 had arrived, Major League Eating had taken over the Nathan’s Famous event, adding it to their roster of international eating competitions. The League required contestants to sign a contract with them, almost in a WWE wrestling kind of way. That way they would control all the revenue and endorsements and would help grow the industry as a whole (where have I heard this before, UFC…) Kobayashi was still in negotiations with the league when July 4th came rolling around, so as the defending champion they still let him compete in the event.
As with every year, I gathered with some friends at a local bar in Costa Rica that had satellite TV so we could have some beers, and some hotdogs of course, and watch the event on ESPN. We all got our bets down on the champ, and made our best guess at the total, and settled in for the spectacle.
And then…the unthinkable happened.
What in the world was going on? Did they change the size of the hot dogs? Did they lengthen the completion? We had never seen anything like this…or what was taking place on live TV.
Two guys were eating this many hot dogs. And the winner was not the great Kobayashi. A new champion was born, and finally, the title was coming back home where it rightfully belonged, in the U.S.A.!
The Joey Chestnut Era
Joey Chestnut, a competitive eater who had come close to winning the year before, had trained so hard that he was able to smash the previous record, and despite a valiant effort from the defending champion, Chestnut was taking home the coveted Mustard Belt. As for our bets, they were nothing but trash. But our desire to find out more about this guy took over!
Since that historic win in 2007, Chestnut has gone on to dominate the annual competition. He won the next 7 years in a row, made much easier with the disappearance of Kobayashi from the playing field. He didn’t actually disappear; he felt he was worth more than Major League Eating offered him, so he refused to sign a contract. In fact, in 2009 he showed up to view the contest, eventually being arrested for disrupting the event by jumping on the stage.
Chestnut was lapping the competition each year, much like his predecessor. In fact, it wasn’t even that fun to watch for us; they shortened the time of the event down to 10 minutes, and he was still eating 60 or so hot dogs, which made it even more grotesque to watch. But then, in 2015, the 8-time champion was unseated in a major upset by Matt “Megatoad” Stonie. The crowd, the betting world, and most lovers of hot dogs were all left in shock. But no one was more upset than Chestnut himself, as you could hear in his voice in the post “game” interview. He vowed revenge, and sure enough, he got it. Last year, “Jaws” took back the title with a jaw-dropping 70 hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes.
So, this year when you are gathered with friends and family on the 4th, see how many hot dogs you can eat in a minute. One? Maybe two? Definitely not three without being an embarrassment to the family. Then think about eating 7 in a minute, every minute, for the next 10. After you wrap your head around that, maybe you too will give these guys a little more credit for what they do, and you will sneak off around noon to a nearby TV and see what the final total will be this year. I know I will be…and who am I kidding, I will definitely be betting on the outcome.
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