Girl power! Now women have their own hot dog-eating contest

April 20, 2011 at 3:26 PM ET

Major League Eating /
Birgit Felden was the hot dog-eating champion 1984.

Move over, WNBA. A new women’s sport is out to capture America’s heart or, more accurately, its stomach. Iconic New York hot dog chain Nathan’s just announced that it will add a women’s-only contest to its 96th annual July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest this summer in Coney Island. The women’s contest will be held directly prior to the men’s event, with the same rules and 12 competitors picked from the national qualifying circuit. Why the sudden addition of a women’s-only contest?

“Our thought was that, well, Sonya Thomas (a.k.a. The Black Widow) can eat more than 40 hot dogs and Juliet Lee can eat in the 30s,” said Richard Shea, chair of Major League Eating. “Their accomplishments are nothing short of extraordinary, but somehow they haven’t got the recognition they deserve because they’re living under the shadow of Joey Chestnut.”

“Each year we see more and more women entering our qualifying events in the hopes of making it to Coney Island,” said Wayne Norbitz, president and COO of Nathan’s Famous, Inc., in a statement. “We surely have had some impressive female eaters compete on July 4th, so we’re introducing this new round to give female competitors the notoriety they deserve.”

Women will be competing for a $5,000 prize -- notably less than the $20,000 Chestnut won in 2009. In 2007, the first year a monetary prize was awarded, the winning contender took home $10,000.

Shea said he has seen an uptick in the number of female competitors participating in Major League Eating events across the board in recent years. One he would love to welcome back is Birgit Felden, the German champion who took the crown in 1984. Felden, who Shea estimates was around 25 years old back when she won the contest, has largely stayed off the radar in competitive eating circles.

“We are looking for her to come back and represent Germany,” Shea said.

Whether or not Nathan’s finds its long-lost champ, there will still be plenty of tough competitors this year, including Thomas and Lee (the current cranberry sauce eating champion from Maryland) and Larell Marie Mele, a personal trainer from Pennsylvania who is coming off a strong rookie year.

While it’s unlikely that any of them will beat Chestnut’s 2009 record of eating 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes, Shea still thinks the women’s-only contest will be a big boon to the event. “It’s very exciting that we’ll be able to crown a female champion of the world.”