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ESPN has made Nathan's contest top dog

Joey Chestnut kisses a bottle of Pepto-Bismol after

Joey Chestnut kisses a bottle of Pepto-Bismol after eating 62 hot dogs at the Nathan's Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island. (July 4, 2011) Credit: AP

'It is one of a kind,'' Jerry Vaillancourt said Monday morning, the ESPN producer stating the obvious as one of the great annual circuses in America unfolded nearby.

"I don't think anything on ESPN has any comparison.''

Um, no. But just in case there was any doubt, soon Rich Shea, president of Major League Eating and TV analyst for the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, was stopping by to say hello and test one of his bun-centric puns on me.

If Joey Chestnut were to win his fifth straight mustard-yellow title belt, Shea said, "He is the Bjorn Borg of the Smorgasbord.''

Shea liked the line so much that he used it on the telecast, along with loopy references to everyone from the Winklevoss twins to Anthony Weiner to Gary Bettman to, finally, another reference to Chestnut after he did secure his fifth championship in a row -- just like the Yankees of 1949-53.

Said Shea, "He is the Phil Rizzuto of Risotto.''

Remember, this guy is the president of the league. Imagine Roger Goodell working the Super Bowl as an analyst and conjuring punny nicknames for Peyton Manning.

That is the beauty of the television approach to Nathan's Coney Island tradition, which dates to 1916 and ties together patriotism, gluttony, commercialism and quirky good humor with a tidy American bow.

ESPN, which has carried the event live since 2004, has bought into the dry humor of bite-by-bite man Paul Page and the Shea brothers -- Rich's brother George is the public address announcer -- and turned the event from a local spectacle into one with international reach.

"They helped really pole- vault it into what it is today,'' Rich Shea said. "While we have 40,000 people out here, we'll have almost two million households tuning in.

"They treat the eaters, rightfully so, like athletes, but they also embrace the pageantry, and that's sort of the magic of our game, let's say.''

ESPN senior director of programming and acquisitions Jason Bernstein said the contest long had "resonated with the folks at ESPN, and we finally reached out.''

Does the network ever get complaints about the sheer disgustingness of it all?

"We really don't receive negative feedback,'' Bernstein said. "It is the widely recognized championship of all championships on the competitive eating circuit. I do think fans certainly appreciate the competition for what it is.''

The early years of the partnership benefited from the rivalry between Chestnut and six-time champion Takeru Kobayashi, who has skipped the last two Nathan's events in a contract dispute with MLE.

Last year, he was hauled off after a scuffle with police. This year, he consumed 69 hot dogs -- seven more than Chestnut -- in an unofficial, simultaneous competition in Manhattan.

Page and Shea discussed Kobayashi, with Shea insisting MLE will negotiate but that Kobayashi "doesn't want to talk.''

With Chestnut reigning unchallenged for now, the telecast continues to add new wrinkles.

This year, that included blimp shots, a Sport Science piece on how Chestnut bites off more than most can chew, a new sideline reporter in former Broncos cheerleader Renee Herlocker and taped highlights of the first-ever all-women's competition, won by Sonya "The Black Widow'' Thomas.

(George Shea's understated take on Thomas: "Evil personified -- the darkness chased ever westward by the rising sun.'')

One constant is the sense of humor. "It's a pun-ripe event,'' Rich Shea said. "But the truth is, the straighter you play it, the funnier it is, if you ask me.''

Said Vaillancourt: "We play it as a serious sporting event and the irony does not escape the audience. They're smart enough to understand the big picture, and that makes it more entertaining.''

So what's next? There are only so many ways to shove hot dogs down your esophagus, right?

"I think that next year, maybe we'll see 3-D,'' Shea said.

Really? Is that a good idea? Said Vaillancourt: "We have thought about it and discussed it.''

Stand back, America.

New York Sports