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Wednesday, May 28, 2003
Updated: June 2, 12:44 PM ET
Diary of a spelling bee street agent

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Everyone is talking about it but no one can believe it. No one wants to believe it. Ninety million dollars? For a teenager? For a snot-nosed kid who's never even competed at the college level, let alone the pros? Utter insanity.

Yeah, well, I'm the agent for that snot-nosed kid. And I'm here to tell you, this endorsement contract makes so much sense that I guarantee within five years, $90 million will seem like a damn bargain for the winner of the National Spelling Bee.

Why, the revenue from his personal line of pocket protectors and "You are here" solar system T-shirts will cover the $90 million nut, easy. After that, the sales from the "Got Paste?" campaign will be pure profit.

Pratyush Buddiga
Pratyush Buddiga won last year's spelling bee, even though our street agent missed out on him.

Besides, this kid isn't going to embarrass anybody down the road. His name is rock solid. There aren't going to be any paternity suits. There aren't going to be any bling-wearing posses getting pulled over in his Escalade for smoking weed. He's a spelling bee champion, for God's sake. He doesn't have any friends, let alone a posse. And even with $90 million drawing interest in his savings account, I doubt if there are any girls out there who want to spend an afternoon watching "Matrix Reloaded" over and over with him. Let alone have sex.

Trust me, I know this kid. I've been scouting him for years. I knew him when his old man was fixing stock recommendations to get him into the right pre-school. I knew him before he received his first edition of the OED. I knew him when his vision was still 20-80.

You have to start 'em that young, you know. This business is a jungle. And let me tell you, there are some real jackals out there. I know one guy who started slipping a kid free white polo slacks before he even knew that it's 'I' before 'E' except after 'C.' (I'm not going to name any names, but this guy's is spelled V-A-C-C-A-R-O.)

Hey, I don't blame him. Hell, I'd have done the same thing if I thought you could buy a kid's loyalty. But you know how it works. You try and help a kid out, and half the time the money winds up going to pay off the parent's bills at Costco and Home Depot.

That's just the way this business works. I'm not proud of it. Blame it on television. Ever since they began broadcasting the National Spelling Bee on TV, everybody wants a piece of the action. And why shouldn't the kid get his slice, just because he'll wind up blowing it on Clearasil?

Trust me, you don't know the half of it -- and you don't want to, either. I've seen parents send a six-year-old to timeout for three hours just because she didn't know whether "catsup" or "ketchup" was the accepted spelling. The sad thing is, both spellings are.

Catherine Miller
No doubt about it: those look like free clothes from a street agent.

It gets ugly out there. It used to be good enough just to scout the computer fairs for talent. But there are so many agents elbowing their way through those things now that you've got no chance there. So you tail cars with bumper stickers that say "My Child is an Honor Student" for 25 miles, and you spend your summers at science camps.

To really be successful, though, you have to work the playgrounds like you're a damn marketing rep from a tobacco company, handing out business cards as if they were Joe Camel bobbleheads to any promising first-grade kid you see standing by himself during recess, reading Harry Potter.

It can be pretty tricky. For one thing, parents have their kids so worried about all these predator and Amber Alert stories that most of the time they just run away from you. Fortunately, none of them can run worth a lick, so you chase them down pretty easily. But that's only half the struggle. You have to earn their trust. And believe me, these kids are weird.

I don't mind the kids who ask if I can get them a scholarship to Hogwart's. They think they're being funny. But if I have to say, "Yes, I'm a muggle" one more time, I think I'm going to scream.

But you put up with it all. You win the kid over, you meet the parents, you go to the science fairs, you go to the elementary spelling bees, you go to the productions of "James and the Giant Peach." You invest years developing a relationship. And if you're lucky, one in 20 kids might pan out and actually make it to the big show.

And then after all those years, when the bright lights hit and the camera comes on, you just hope the kid remembers that there are four O's in Onomatopoeia.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.