Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Eat This Fringe Media!

(This article was originally published by Sports Media Watch on April 24, 2006.)

Welcome to the zenith of this column, welcome to the height of fringe sports media. When I started this column, in the back of my mind, I think I always knew it would come to this. All of the sports media I’ve written about thus far have been media about legitimate sports. Not many people nationally are paying attention to basketball in Glendive, Montana or hockey in Bemidji, Minnesota, but no one denies that those are, indeed, sports. I’m taking this column to the next level. Today’s column looks at the media coverage of an event that some refer to as “The fastest growing sport in the country” while others refer to it as “Waiting for idiots to choke.” I’m talking about competitive eating.

Let’s begin with the existential question: is it a sport or isn’t it? A quick visit to dictionary.com reveals these possible definitions of “sport” as we want to use it:

1) Physical activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively

2) An activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively

3) An active pastime; recreation

I’m forced to think of it as a sport. It is a physical activity, otherwise how do you explain eating 7 quarter-pound butter sticks in FIVE MINUTES and some of the other records, the International Federation of Competitive Eating keeps track of. (Oh yeah, there’s an organized group. I’ll get to that in a minute). There are rules in the form of mandates and safety standards. As for competition… well, they don’t call it the International Federation of No-One’s-Keeping-Score Eating, do they?

More importantly, media looks at it as a sport, or at least such a highly entertaining contest that media will mimic sports coverage for it. The IFOCE sets media up to do that by maintaining its website like a legitimate sporting organization. They keep track of records, rankings, results, and even have numerous sponsors for their events, the same as golf tournaments and NASCAR races. The site also keeps track of news in the sport, including an overtime match to start off the Nathan’s Famous Circuit in Florida on the fifteenth of April. Crazy Legs Conti, the winner of that match, supposedly left shortly after his victory – and I’m not making this up – to run in the Boston Marathon. Stunning.

This self-inflicted credibility as a sport has paid off to a certain extent. During the height of IFOCE’s season – the summer, around the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on the fourth of July – a lot of media outlets cover the sport. Last year’s winner, Takeru Kobayashi, made Sportscenter and showed up on Page 2 at ESPN.com, as Brian Murphy called him the more dominant in his sport than either Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods. Really, though, Kobayashi’s greatest media exposure on ESPN was probably the Sportscenter commercial he appeared in last year in which he devoured an entire lunch at the ESPN cafeteria in less than a 30 second commercial.

The sport has also managed to make the big papers. The Washington Post took a look at the science of competitive eating, including one promoter’s witticism “Vomiting is a healthy way [for the body] to say you’ve gone over your limit.” Indeed. And last year at Thanksgiving, the New York Times ran an article, part of which looked at the Thanksgiving Invitational.

The Times also published a review last year of a documentary on Crazy Legs Conti, he of the eating and Boston Marathon fame. The documentary played in Manhattan art houses and was also seen on A&E. While chronicling Conti’s career in competitive eating (“A cross-discipline athlete is what everyone wants to be” he says while practicing butter eating in his apartment), the film also looks at the subculture of IFOCE.

And let’s not forget marketing the athlete, both by the sport does it and the athletes themselves. IFOCE has profiles for all of its top eaters, including Kobayashi, Conti, and Joey Chestnut, the rookie who roared onto the scene last year by placing third in the Nathan’s annual contest and coming in second in a Krystal hamburger qualifier. The winner of that qualifier was Sonya Thomas, the top ranked American eater. She cultivates her nickname, the Black Widow, by using it as part of her website and her signature. It’s an image, a brand, and she’s selling it. It implies a killer instinct, which she seems to have proven by the 27 world titles her site proclaims.

Don’t forget Kobayashi, either, who has branded and marketed himself more thoroughly by dominating the high profile hot dog eating contest (which drew around 10,000 fans last year) and appearing on ESPN. Jon Stewart even knew who he was the other night on the Daily Show.

In fact, the sport of competitive eating made an appearance this week on the Daily Show in the form of Ryan Nerz, author of Eat this Book, a look at a year on the competitive eating circuit. I would be lying if I said that Nerz and Stewart discussed the sport with any level of seriousness, but then again it’s the Daily Show. Having said that, you should take a look at the video on Comedy Central’s Motherload, it’s hysterical. Nerz, to his credit, though, was very knowledgeable and pushed, as much as anyone can on a fictional news show, for the sports credibility as a sport. He brought up and explained why little guys in the sport have an easier time than larger eaters (big guts restrict stomach expansion in the heat of eating battle).

So when you think about and compare coverage, center media takes competitive eating about as seriously as a sport as it does the Iditarod, giving it a fair dose of human interest attention with a smidge of legit coverage. Does this elevate competitive eating to the Iditarod’s level? No, of course not. There’s a huge difference between eating 11 pounds of cheesecake in 9 minutes and traveling more than 1,000 miles by dogsled in less than 2 weeks. But it’s interesting that in center media fringe sports that are so different can get equal attention.

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