With its recent purchase of the National Hockey League's television rights, OLN is showing signs that it might push to become a major sports network. Whether that ever comes to fruition might depend as much on beef on grills as skates on ice.
This Saturday at 10 p.m., OLN is airing the season finale of its original program, the "All-Star BBQ Showdown." It's the culmination of a series of nine grill-offs between professional and amateur chefs for the right to be called the best barbecue chef in America. Think "World Series of Poker" meets "Iron Chef."
Like the growing professional competitive eating circuit, competitive barbecuing is now one of the faster-rising sports in this country. The Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), a 20-year-old organization for grilling enthusiasts, now has more than 6,000 members who pony up $35 per year for a membership. (Membership fees include a subscription to the organization's newsletter, The Bullsheet.)
"It's an explosion right now," said Carolyn Wells, executive director of the organization that now sanctions more than 200 competitive barbecuing events stretching from Maine to Washington. "Or maybe I shouldn't say that. Explosion isn't the best word to use when talking about barbecuing."
The barbecuing culture's World Series, the American Royal, takes place in three weeks. There's an amateur division and an invitational; and spectators, who are among the roughly five million people who come to see barbecue contests each year according to KCBS, pay $9 to watch. Sponsors include Bayer and Sprint, along with some other more predictable names -- KC Masterpiece, Kingsford charcoal and Sheridan's Frozen Custard.
A highly-ranked competitive barbecue chef must be proficient in the four categories -- chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder and beef brisket.
"When it gets down to it, it's the heat and the meat," said Byron Chism, a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America who is now making his living touring the country at competitive barbecuing events. "It's really not that complicated."
But it is. In fact, it's really very complex. It certainly isn't easy to cook ribs for seven hours and get them exactly right. Judges will be checking for too much smoke, too much salt and too much tartness. And in KCBS-sanctioned contests, there are strict rules.
You bring your own meat. You're allowed to trim it, but you can't pre-marinate or pre-season it. And absolutely no recipes can be in your hand.
It's one thing to cook for your family. It's another to be doing it for $25,000, OLN's prize money. That's believed to be the single biggest monetary award in competitive barbecuing history.
Chism, who was one of the last chefs standing in Saturday's televised finale, has won four state championships this year (Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and Georgia), but he doesn't rely entirely on the prize money. The dollars also stream in from sales of his "Bad Byron's Butt Rub" -- a seasoning blend of salt, pepper, onion, garlic, chipotle and paprika.
Chism's trademarked motto? "A Little Butt Rub Makes Everything Better."
Chism isn't the only one cashing in big-time. Ray Lampe, a.k.a. Dr. BBQ, also makes his living grilling. He gave up truck-driving, but he's still on the road about eight months a year traveling to tournaments. That's worked out pretty well for him so far. He's won more than 200 awards and more than 10 state championships.
Aside from his book "Dr. BBQ's Big Time Barbecue Cookbook," Lampe sells his Bonesmokers Honey BBQ Sauce and "Dr. BBQ's Crank It Up 13-Pepper Blend." Then he has his sponsorships. Just as you won't see LeBron James wearing Reebok anytime soon, you won't find Lampe cooking on anything that competes with "The Big Green Egg" grill. He also teaches classes and, if his schedule permits, he's available to hire out as a ringer at your next barbecue. It will only cost you $1,500 for two days of cooking, and that's not including transportation or lodging.
"I was once asked to cook a Thanksgiving dinner," Lampe said.
Among the stars on OLN's show is a group of three women amateurs who barbecued their way into the finale. Betsy Coleman, Lana Hall and Alison Murphy call themselves "Squeal of Approval." (Got to be one of the best names in the sport, along with "Dirty Dick's Legless Wonder," "Two Hog Nuts," and "The Staggering Chef."
The "Squeal of Approval" women wear hot pink tie-dyed shirts.
"I actually [stink] at cooking indoors," Coleman said to Page 2.
But outdoors, the "Squeal" can certainly cook a mean chicken, and that means the sponsorship dollars are pouring in. They get free beer from the Boulevard Brewing Co., a microbrewery in Kansas, and free rub from Smokin' Guns BBQ.
If all goes well, they'll be featured in stores soon on cardboard cutouts.
And trading cards could be just around the corner.
Darren Rovell, who covers the competitive eating beat for ESPN and ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.Rovell@espn3.com.