For the better part of a decade, Takeru Kobayashi of Japan was the unofficial king of July 4th: his ability to eat nausea-inducing numbers of hot dogs at the annual hot dog eating contest at Coney Island drove spectators and, eventually, live nationally-televised coverage of the event. But since 2010, Kobayashi has been barred from the stage as part of a labor dispute with Major League Eating (MLE), which both organizes the contest and, in Kobayaski’s words, “owns” the eaters. And, for the first time, he opened up to SB Nation’s Amy Nelson about the terms of the contract that ended his association with the League.
It was major news in competitive eating circles when Kobayashi was barred from the 2010 Coney Island event in what both sides acknowledged was a contract dispute. Kobayashi, whose skills at overeating almost anything had all but made him a household name, didn’t want to be beholden to MLE for a whole year’s worth of eating and endorsements just for the right to compete at Coney Island. Richard Shea of the MLE declared the exclusivity part of the contract non-negotiable and told the New York Daily News, “His saying this is like Tom Brady saying he’d like to be in the Super Bowl, but not in the NFL.” When Kobayashi nonetheless attended the 2010 contest and responded to fans’ chants to take the stage, he was arrested.
Shea told SB Nation’s Nelson that MLE offered Kobayashi a $25,000 contract for four events, with up to $100,000 if he won — but that “Any prize monies awarded by the holder of the event would be recouped by MLE.” In other words, Kobayashi would be held under an exclusive contract by the MLE, limited to 4 events and, if the prize money he won from those events totaled more than $100,000, MLE would keep the remains.
Kobayashi objected, and wanted only to be contractually obligated to the Coney Island contest, leaving him free to compete, judge or endorse products as he saw fit. Instead, MLE offered him a $40,000 contract covering July 4, 2010 – July 4, 2011, restricting his rights to participate in any other competitive eating event or exhibition in any way, shape or form or endorse anything not mandated by the MLE — effectively, heavily restricting his yearly income to $20,000 for the remainder of 2010 and $20,000 for the first half of 2011. That is the contract Kobayashi rejected, which ended his participation in the MLE.
Kobayashi said, “My belief is that the organization that produces the event cannot be the same agency that also owns the athletes.” He added, “My belief is that there should be a body governing the contest, that each eater should belong to their own agent or their own agencies. The same organizing people cannot be the same body organizing the eaters.”
Last year, in a competing July 4th hot dog eating contest in Manhattan, Kobyashi ate 69 hot dogs even as the official title-holder Joey Chestnut (whose record stands at 66) only put away 62. This year, Kobayashi is hosting (and competing) this year in the Crif Dog Classic, eating the locally-renowned hot dogs with other competitors in Brooklyn.
Watch the interview with Kobayashi, first broadcast by SB Nation on July 3, 2012, below.