NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
When most of us eat out, we pay for our food. But some people are starting to get paid to eat. The trick is, they must devour mass quantities of food in short amounts of time.
Competitive eating is on its way to becoming a well-paid sport, a startling development for a pastime where the only reward used to be the glory.
George Shea, founder of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), competitive eating's ruling body, says, "When we started in 1997, there were almost no prizes. In an effort to make it more viable we have pushed sponsors to offer more cash rewards."
As owner of a public relations firm, Shea has represented Nathan's Famous, the restaurant chain, since 1989. He took over the running of their Coney Island Fourth of July hot dog eating contest -- he calls it the de facto Olympics of the competitive eating world -- in 1991.
Under his guidance, the once bite-sized eating contest circuit has mushroomed into nearly 200 IFOCE-sanctioned events all around the globe. That's up from just 45 in 2002.
Cash prizes are growing
While big purses are still rare -- not much more than $100,000 was ladled out in 2004 -- that should jump to near $200,000 this year. Winners can garner as much as $10,000 in a single event -- the Krystal Square-Off World Hamburger Eating Contest in Chattanooga Tennessee hosted by Krystal Restaurants, a hamburger chain.
In his win there, Takeru Kobayashi, the 137-pound Japanese man universally proclaimed the world's greatest eater, scarfed down 69 burgers in eight minutes. He also garnered a rare plum, a licensing agreement in which the chain uses his image on its "Sackful Combo," a box of 12 burgers, fries, and drinks.
Shea says that in the very near future, sponsorships, prizes, and appearance money should be sufficient to enable the world's top gurgitators to actually make a good living. Already, he expects some members to earn more than $50,000 this year.
The almost pros
One poised to benefit from the sport's growth is Eric "Badlands" Booker, who grew up in Queens, New York and often attended the Nathan's contests. "In the back of my mind I always thought I could do that," he says. In 1997, he entered a qualifying tournament in Oceanside, New York, thinking, "I'll put my money where my stomach is."
He ate 17 franks in 12 minutes, winning a year's supply of hot dogs, a trophy, and a spot in the main contest. Since then, his reach has expanded, along with his girth, to championships for eating onions, burritos, cannolis, and candy bars. Badlands expects to participate in 20 events this year. His biggest purse so far: $5,000.
Badlands also gets his expenses paid sometimes. He uses the events to travel, to meet people, and, especially, to promote his other interest: hip hop. The New York City subway conductor often warms up contest audiences with musical performances and he hawks his CD (available here), "Hungry and Focused," to eating fans.
The 420-pound Badlands sometimes faces off against 99-pound Sonya Thomas, AKA "the Black Widow," of Alexandria Virginia. Thomas, who grew up hungry in South Korea, burst into the world of competitive eating in 2003, and has quickly devoured her way to the top. She's the number-two rated competitive eater in the world.
The Black Widow's day job, appropriately, is Burger King manager. She revels in the competition of eating contests and took her nickname from the spider that eats its mate because, "It is my desire to eliminate the males." (See her Web site here.)
Her biggest win was an $18,000 Suzuki Verona. And she has been paid to eat hard-boiled eggs at an NBA halftime show (52 in five minutes) and other exhibitions. She has also appeared on TV: "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and Animal Planet's "Most Extreme: Battle of the Sexes," where she went tummy to tummy against Badlands in eating cheesecake.
The royal American couple of competitive eating is Rich and Carlene LeFevre of Las Vegas Nevada. He's a retired accountant and she's a teacher; he ranks third in the world and she's seventh.
The LeFevres have opposite takes on the competitions. "I enjoy all the festivities surrounding the events," says Carlene, "but I definitely do not enjoy the 10 to 12 minutes of actual eating. Rich says he does, but I don't see how anyone could."
At contests, "I'm so focused and determined," Rich says, "that I can't wait for the bell to go off."
Rich's biggest win was a million-point trip reward, worth between $4,500 and $5,000, for eating birthday cake. Carlene won a piece of Acoma pottery worth about $1,300 and a cash prize of $777 for gobbling 109.75 ounces of posole -- Mexican stew -- in 12 minutes.
Other purses Rich swallowed up this year included $3,000 for eating Tex-Mex rolls and $2,500 for lobsters. "The prize money has really begun piling up lately," he says; he has triumphed in the last five contests he entered.
Shea says the sport would take off even faster if the country was not, "struggling with the obesity issue." Nevertheless, the IFOCE already has 300 league members. Only about 50 of those, however, are very active.
In addition to prizes, top competitors also may receive appearance fees, but endorsement deals have been slow in coming. Food purveyors mostly shy away, according to Shea. "A lot of the food world doesn't want to get involved."
He has been getting feelers, however, from antacid sellers.
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