Commentary

The National Spelling Bee's moment

Updated: June 2, 2011, 12:04 AM ET
By Amy Goldstein | ESPN.com

For every conventional sport, at least three others seek to become mainstream. At certain times of the year, those sports gain a following -- they trend on Twitter; their competitors become household names for a day; they're watercooler discussion fodder.

[+] EnlargeCelebrity Spellers
Noel Vasquez/Getty ImagesSpike Jonze, left, and Jimmy Kimmel were celebrity spellers in a benefit last fall. Is there any doubt of the growth of the bee?

This week, the National Spelling Bee fills that niche.

Some would argue that spelling is not a sport and doesn't deserve a slot on ESPN. (Watch ESPN3 Wednesday and ESPN3 and ESPN starting at 10 a.m. ET Thursday.) But viewership, not to mention the intense preparation of my fellow spellers, validates its status.

Consider that the Scripps National Spelling Bee's prime-time telecast has averaged at least 4 million viewers each year since 2006, the first year the championship finals were in prime time on ABC, according to Nielsen Media Research. Last year, the final rounds drew almost 1 million more viewers than Versus' telecast of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers. This year, with the prime-time telecast returning to ESPN, could it generate similar ratings despite going up against Game 2 of the NBA Finals?

"If someone is flipping channels and suddenly sees a spelling bee on ESPN, they're probably thinking, 'OK, let me watch this' and watch it with seriousness [because of who's broadcasting it] rather than 'Oh, great, "Grey's Anatomy" isn't on,'" said Nupur Lala, the 1999 National Spelling Bee champion.

Even if the bee doesn't win the head-to-head prime-time viewer battle with LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki, it is almost certain to set an attendance record. The National Spelling Bee moved this year from the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., to the Gaylord National Hotel and Convention Center (which has twice the space with 3,500 seats) in National Harbor, Md. The venue expansion reflects the sport's growth. In 2001, 248 spellers participated; the number peaked at 293 in 2009; and 275 young people will spell this year. The bee outgrew its previous space, according to Corrie Loeffler, the National Spelling Bee's program manager.

The bee now has extra seats and is charging admission for the first time: $20 for Wednesday's preliminary rounds, $25 for Thursday's semifinal rounds and $40 for Thursday's championship finals. Previously, limited numbers of family and friends could accompany a speller to watch in person (and those guests still get free tickets in the new location). It's akin to opening a vast swath of bleachers at the Super Bowl to ordinary fans instead of corporate guests, or the Final Four's move from basketball arenas to the reconfigured domes that seat 40,000-plus.

The change of venue and the larger crowd in the room probably won't affect the spellers during the competition. There will be no "Price Is Right"-style suggestions shouted by fans during words; I recall silence as I spelled. But opening the bee to the public gives more exposure during what for many is their 15 minutes of fame.

When I competed in 1998, the possibility that I would spell on ESPN made my skills interesting and relevant to family and friends.

As fellow spellers dropped out in each round and the cameras focused on me each time I stepped to the microphone, I realized I had studied hard enough to advance to the final rounds of the bee. I had never thought I could win, so once I spelled my first word (of four) on ESPN, my situation was mostly pressure-free. But hearing the audience's cheers, seeing the bright lights overhead and recognizing that my hard work had paid off was exhilarating.

Amy Goldstein
Amy Goldstein Amy Goldstein represented Newsday as a Long Island speller in 1998.

I'm not alone in that feeling. Loeffler spelled at the national level in 1994 (the first year ESPN broadcast the bee), 1995 and 1996, reaching the TV rounds and finishing sixth in 1995. "It was really exciting because all of a sudden there was a secondary goal -- it wasn't 'I want to win' but rather 'I want to make it to the ESPN broadcast,'" she said.

That goal isn't all that different from the ambition of a Division II athlete who advances in a playoff far enough to be nationally televised. For a young competitor who is unlikely to channel the activity into a profession, television coverage is rewarding.

Doubters may remain unconvinced. Do a daylong cable telecast and the cost of admission establish the National Spelling Bee as a sport? Perhaps not on their own. So what inherently does?

In an individual sport such as tennis, competitors assiduously prepare. Likewise, the spellers who are in our nation's capital this week have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours practicing, learning, memorizing and studying. I studied some in seventh grade, and when I realized I had a chance to reach the top level, I studied at least two hours a day in the year leading up to my national appearance.

Spellers like me may not be exerting themselves to the same physical degree as the competitors on the clay courts of Roland Garros, but they have honed their game and mental stamina to face the elite in their field.

"[Spelling is] very much a sport in that people are challenging themselves to the max in what is a very nerve-racking competition that really tests someone's endurance and what they're made of," Lala said. "You almost see the way a kid who's done it for three years looks different on stage versus someone who's doing it for the first time. That's the same way an athlete gets conditioned."

Unconvinced? Watch for a few minutes and ask yourself whether you could last a single round in this arena.

Amy Goldstein is an associate editor at ESPN.com who tied for fourth place in the 1998 National Spelling Bee. She is the only contestant to misspell a letter -- aitch -- at nationals. You can reach her at amy.m.goldstein@espn.com.

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