20,000 people expected for Wing Bowl

There will be no shortage of chicken wings at Wing Bowl 21 in Philadelphia on Friday. AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Who needs three weeks of Mardi Gras celebrations when you have three hours of Wing Bowl?

Certainly not the 20,000 or so people expected to turn out for SportsRadio 94WIP’s Wing Bowl 21 in Philadelphia, which begins at 6 a.m. Friday when 27 hearty and hungry wing lovers dig in at a sold-out Wells Fargo Center. An event that began in the lobby of a hotel 20 years ago has morphed into a Philadelphia tradition.

The annual Friday-before-the-Super-Bowl extravaganza -- complete with the famous Wingettes and some creative parade-style floats -- features a $20,000 first-place prize. It has evolved into mini three-hour indoor Mardi Gras-type spectacle and gives frustrated Philadelphia sports fans a chance to have a party of their own on Super Bowl weekend even if the Eagles won't be playing again until next September.

The party starts long before 6 a.m.

"It's probably what the U.S. government should do with Super Bowl weekend and make the Monday after the game Presidents Day," said event creator Al Morganti, who is a part of WIP’s morning drive team and was a hockey analyst for ESPN in the 1990s. "It's like the appetizer here for Super Bowl weekend and it's intrinsically tied to the game."

This year's competition is split in two groups -- national and local. The top local eater wins a 2013 Nissan Pathfinder. While Morganti admits the Wingettes "are the whole draw," there is a metaphysical purpose to this competition beyond determining the king of wings. "The basic idea is to have a local guy be a hero and get the cheers that the athletes usually get," Morganti said. "At least for a day, they're the big man on campus."

A postgame analyst for Comcast SportsNet's Flyers broadcasts, Morganti doesn't see the Wing Bowl moving outdoors to a larger venue despite its growing audience because of the cold. "It's right before the Super Bowl and unlike the NFL [Super Bowl XLVIII will be outdoors at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey] we acknowledge weather. We don't think we're bigger than God," Morganti said. "It wouldn't be fair to have the event outside when it's below zero." Morganti said he would like to add a spring or summer version of the Wing Bowl as part of a music festival.

The $10 tickets sold out in two days in December and the cheapest seats available on StubHub start at $30.

Just how big a deal is Wing Bowl? Just ask new Eagles coach Chip Kelly, who mentioned the Wing Bowl in his introductory news conference two weeks ago:

"I know about the fan base in Philadelphia, and that excites me," Kelly said. "I know the second-most important bowl, besides the Super Bowl which is my goal, is the Wing Bowl."

"That shocked us," Morganti said.

Three-time champion Jonathan "Super" Squibb, of Berlin, N.J., is the odds-on favorite -- according to event organizers -- at 3-2.

Jamie "The Bear" McDonald, who gained Internet fame last month with his viral video demolishing the Denny's "Hobbit" menu, is listed at 2-1.

McDonald, of Granby, Conn., said he's ready for just about anything. "With those girls, I've heard it's easy to be distracted," he said. "When I eat, I'm totally focused on what I'm doing. I don't typically have a problem with crowds."

McDonald has been loading up on wings of late to improve his technique. "My goal is to hit a least 300 in [the 30 minutes]." And he has developed his own wing-eating technique. "You have the drum and the blade. With the drum, you rotate it, take a bite, rotate 180 degrees and take another bite," said McDonald, whose favorite wing sauce flavor is Parmesan garlic. "There's a fatter end and skinnier end on the blade. You pinch the fatter end of the blade, called the knuckle, and squeeze it real hard and it separates the meat from that end. You stick the whole thing in your mouth, clamp down and pull it out and it's clean."

McDonald recently signed with All Pro Eating. "There are expectations since I'm their No. 1. Anything I do, I have to win," McDonald said. "If I go out to some contest and I lose, that's pretty bad. Their plans are for me to win all their contests. There's some pressure but I'll keep doing what I do. If I don't push myself 150 percent, I'll lose. I never get complacent."

"Right now I think I have a pretty good chance," he said.

Takeru Kobayashi won Wing Bowl 20 in 2012, demolishing the competition by eating 337 wings in 30 minutes. "That guy cost me a fortune just bringing him to dinner to get him to come," Morganti said. "He found where the wings were from and ordered those. He kind of [Bill] Belichick-ed it. He studied the video of how to eat wings and came up with a new method. It was ridiculous."

Kobayashi will not be defending his crown this year, which is good news for the other competitors. Squibb finished a distant second with 271. The rest of this year's field is comprised of eaters from Washington, New York, Chicago, Dallas and across the Metro Philly area. A portion of the proceeds from Wing Bowl 21 will benefit local charities. Fans outside WIP's signal can follow the action online here. A one-hour, on-demand highlight special will be available on WatchWingBowl.Com starting at 1 p.m. Friday.

Bill Speros is an ESPN.com contributor. He can be reached on Twitter @billsperos or via email at bsperos1@gmail.com.