With so many grammar nazis out in cyberspace I’m a little surprised that there isn’t an overwhelming support and audience for what I’m dubbing without hesitation as the greatest American sporting event of the year: The Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. How is an event based on spelling words a sport, let alone the greatest sporting spectacle? Let me count the ways:
1) There are underdogs and favorites to root for
The public school kid with no prior experience in the Bee, the home schooled veteran, the international student representing an entire country, or the 3-time Bee semifinalist – who ya got? Like all great sports, it’s human nature to choose a side and naturally gravitate towards rooting for a favorite. And you’ll quickly pick favorites while watching the Spelling Bee, trust me. You may even find yourself silently fist pumping along as they decipher a word just before the bell, to advance to the next round.
2) It’s an international game
It’s that time of year that Asians* see a resurgence of representation on ESPN in America. Just this year, the event will feature competitors from America, Canada, Ghana, Puerto Rico, South Korea, and China. If the idea that someone from China is literally spelling English words better than North Americans isn’t enough of a motivator to watch, I don’t know what is.
*not named Tiger and Jeremy.
3) There are friendships
There are close friendships formed between competitors over “Bee week”, the week-long stretch of time prior to and including the competition, spent bonding and getting to know one another. But don’t be mistaken – when that elimination bell goes off, the Hunger Games begin. The Bee is unrelenting and uncaring. It won’t matter how close you’ve bonded to a friend during the weekend potato sack race by the Washington Monument. There can only be one. (Alright, technically there can be more than one, but that hasn’t happened in over half a century – 1962.)
4) There are rivalries
The eligibility rules for competing in the 2013 event include the following: You must not have won the Spelling Bee in the past, and you can’t be older than 14 or past the 8th grade. There is no age minimum. In other words, returning competitors often build a rivalry going up against each other over potentially a half decade span of time. Since the turnover rate on these spellers is so high, sometimes these rivalries develop over the course of a single competition. I need only cite the back and forth 2006 Spelling Bee war on prime time television between New Jerseyan Kerry Close and Canadian Finola Hackett to illustrate this point.
5) There are unique match ups
In sports it’s all about the match ups (just ask the 2007 Dallas Mavericks) – not only the head to head kind between spellers, but the match ups between a speller and the word. Each speller at the preliminary level onward gets his/her own word to spell. There’s a chance a kid can get a word he’s never heard of, or a word that he studied and remembered 10 minutes before he got on stage. Think of it as a batter/pitcher match up, only there’s no pansy substitutions of pinch hitters or relief pitchers. And instead of 3 strikes, you get one swing. In essence, you’re stuck on the plate with one shot to spell the word correctly and knock it out of the park or to spell it incorrectly and go home packing. But you’ll always get at least the one swing, and it’s that kind of long shot chance that adds to the unpredictability and appeal of the event.
6) There are buzzer beaters
Spelling words the average person can’t even pronounce (or sound out) is not easy. But try doing that with a shot clock – the clutch and choke factor is real. If you’re unfamiliar with the event, these kids only have 2 minutes to spell their word while all eyes are on them. Having one shot, no take-backsies, no offensive rebounds, no assists, and no timeouts sets the stage for some kids to develop a knack for getting out of tight spots with a clutch prayer shot in the dark, or choke the opportunity away with a complete guess.
7) You have NO idea who will win
You can’t play the percentages in any meaningful way here. There are definitely favorites based on preliminary round scores and high place finishes in the past, but this event is a nightmare to gamble on. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of statistics available though. I can only imagine the type of drinking game spreads based on all the categories available such as:
General Speller Breakdown
- Number of Spellers: 281
- 134 boys (47.7%) 147 girls (52.3%)
- 1 eight-year-old (0.4%) 65 twelve-year-olds (23.1%)
- 8 ten-year-olds (2.9%) 110 thirteen-year-olds (39.1%)
- 21 eleven-year-olds (7.5%) 76 fourteen-year-olds (27.0%)
- 1 third grader (0.4%) 43 sixth graders (15.3%)
- 2 fourth graders (0.7%) 93 seventh graders (33.1%)
- 13 fifth graders (4.6%) 129 eighth graders (45.9%)
- 178 public (63.4%)
- 54 private (19.2%)
- 25 home (8.9%)
- 15 parochial (5.3%)
- 9 charter (3.2%)
So there it is. The National Spelling Bee is as American as baseball, as international as an Olympic event, as dramatic as the 2 minute warning, and as unpredictable as March Madness. It combines all the great stories and qualities that you find in sports, and compiles them into a single competition over the course of a week that tests the physical and mental grit and stamina of its competitors. It is an event that encompasses all the things that makes sports awesome. And before you say that there’s nothing athletic about spelling, behold this MichaelJordanflugame-esque finish before the shot clock expires:
One can only imagine what goes through the minds of these spellers as they sit and watch their competitors for prolonged stretches of time and wait for their turn in the hot seat…but I know what comes to my mind when I find out the Spelling Bee is on:
Time to make some popcorn.
See the official Scripps website for competitor bios and more information on the National Spelling Bee. The semifinals and finals are scheduled for this Thursday 5/30.
What was your favorite moment from the National Spelling Bee?