Damn it, I missed it. Seems like I was too abstracted due to the World Cup to realize that the big event was going on a little more than two weeks ago: The annual “Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest”. The crowning title fight in worldwide competitive eating. The classical matchup of the two dominating competitive eaters, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut vs. Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi. Wait, what did you say? Kobayashi didn’t compete this year? That’s right, he didn’t. And here’s the point where competitive eating appears to be way more serious stuff than most of us might think.
To some it sounds like pure fun, to some it sounds utterly disgusting, and probably it’s both of the above when grown-up men eat 68 (!) hot dogs in ten minutes (that’s the World Record set by Joey Chestnut one year ago). More than one and a half million viewers were watching this year’s event live on TV with a live audience of 40.000 people at the event on Coney Island, New York. The winner receives $10.000 in cash, and over the last ten years only Kobayashi (2001 to 2006) and Chestnut (since 2007) were able to grab the title. It’s the duel everybody is waiting for and in 2008 it even went into overtime after a 59-59 in regulation (I have no idea how it must feel to go into an overtime eatoff after eating 59 hot dogs in a row, but that’s really what they did…).
This year, Kobayashi was not allowed to enter the contest: The event is sanctioned by the “Major League Eating”. No, I’m not joking, that really is the name of the most important competitive eating event organizer, so what MLB is to baseball, the MLE is to competitive eating. It seems like Major League Eating requested Kobayashi to sign a contract that would have exclusively tied him to participate in MLE events, only. Kobayashi refused to sign, stating that he was a free man and wanted to participate in other events as well, so the organization excluded him from the hot dog contest.
Without Kobayashi, the competition was quite boring. Chestnut only ate 54 hot dogs – that’s 14 shy of what he achieved last year but still 11 more than Tim “Eater X” Janus, who came in second. The only real entertainment came from Kobayashi, who was in the audience wearing a “Free Kobi” T-Shirt, before storming on stage during the award ceremony to protest against his exclusion. Under loud “Let him eat!” chants from the crowd, he was arrested for “resisting arrest, trespassing and obstructing governmental administration” and kept in prison overnight before being released on July 5th.
There were no winners in this dispute. Kobayashi went to prison, Chestnut could not show that he really is the best and the biggest loser of the day was Major League Eating, which lost credibility and staged a boring contest (except for Kobayashi’s intervention, of course).
My take on the event: The days of exclusive contracts with outstanding performers are over – not only in competitive eating. There maybe are Kobayashis and Chestnuts working for your company, too. People that have an ability that others don’t have. People that can do things better, faster, more creative, more accurate, more whatever than others. Gifted people. People that are of great use for you. Maybe they are better negotiators than others. Maybe they find better communication claims. Maybe they have a better strategic view. Maybe they come up with better ideas for new products and services. Wouldn’t you love to have those people tied exclusively to you and your company?
Here’s the bad news: The power has shifted. They know about their abilities and the value they add, as markets and opportunities are more transparent to them than ever before. Tying themselves exclusively to one company or customer would limit their opportunities. Why should they?
That leaves companies in a weak position. Like Major League Eating they only have two choices: Insist on exclusivity and risk to lose the services of the gifted completely, or give in, agree on non-exclusive terms and maybe even pay lots of money for the services.
There is no general rule what to do best, as it depends on the individual situation, but it seems to me like many companies are too proud or not capable of creating the right setup for accepting non-exclusives. In a world of fast opportunities and threats, of high stakes and working in project organizations, that’s a sin.
I’ve seen strategy experts that only came into a company for a few days but helped to generate strategies worth millions, I’ve seen negotiation experts that were only hired for one particular negotiation and helped to avoid disaster and I’ve seen creatives that generated a few ideas and went on to the next client, but helped the company to leapfrog one or two years.
The people that can really make a difference will be scarcer, more powerful and more flexible in whom they work for. They set the rules of the game. It’s your choice if you want to play, but if you don’t, one thing is clear: You won’t have a chance to win.