The National Spelling Bee’s Biggest Fans

This week is one of my favorite of the year, and not just because of Memorial Day barbeques. It’s “Bee Week” 2015, the week of the National Spelling Bee, and the championship finals will be broadcast on ESPN tonight, May 28, at 8:00 PM (ET).
As a former speller, I like to keep up with the event. Clicking through speller bios earlier today, I found myself wondering: isn’t it intriguing that the children at the National Spelling Bee are mostly represented by newspapers, as opposed to any other local business? It doesn’t seem like newspapers would specifically have extra funds to spare for sponsorships, and simple goodwill isn’t quite enough to justify funding the spelling bee in particular, of all children’s academic competitions. There must be an alternative incentive that draws newspapers to support the spelling bee, beyond their reporting of the event itself.
While these thoughts puzzle me now, I never questioned my sponsors as a contestant. Before I qualified for nationals in ‘06 and ‘07, I used to dream about being a national speller and representing my local paper, the Dallas Morning News. I even made my own bright yellow placard and wrote my favorite number down—54—as my speller number, scrawling “The Dallas Morning News” underneath in bold letters that grew tinier and tinier as I realized I was running out of room. I never thought about how odd it was that a twelve-year-old kid like me was onstage, looking out at a sea of tense adults and disinterested younger siblings, hoping my memory wouldn’t fail me—all while representing my newspaper.
When I visited the National Spelling Bee’s regional competition in Shanghai in 2010, I spent time with representatives of their sponsor, Qooco, a company that develops educational technology products for businesses as well as younger learners. This sponsorship made a lot more sense to me because some of their apps specifically deal with learning English. But what stake could newspapers possibly have in supporting the spelling bee?
As it turns out, newspapers didn’t simply jump onto the bandwagon of this national tradition. The National Spelling Bee was actually founded by a collaboration of nine newspapers in 1925. It wasn’t until sixteen years later that Scripps, itself a newspaper and broadcast company, became attached to the Bee by name. You might think that the tradition would have faded at some point, especially now that the spelling bee has become somewhat of a niche competition, but it seems its days of newspaper sponsorship are not quite done.
I’m impressed at the proportion of competitors this year who are still sponsored by newspapers. In today’s technologically focused world, the Bee has adapted by instituting a computerized, multiple-choice qualifying test rather than the clunky paper version of the test that I took just eight years ago. Many believe that newspapers will struggle to retain a wide readership as the print versions of broadsheets and tabloids dip in popularity. It might seem, then, that newspapers wouldn’t have the spare change to sponsor kids in a spelling bee. And indeed, an increasing number of sponsors are now independent educational groups, businesses, and universities. Nor is sponsorship artificially restricted in any way by the National Spelling Bee, which formally defines a sponsor as “a business, community organization, college or university that signs a contract with our office agreeing to coordinate and pay for a spelling bee program for all schools within an area”.
Yet a large number of newspapers have persisted in supporting local spellers. When I competed, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star Telegram followed my and superstar repeat speller Samir Patel’s performance in the bee each day, congratulating us on our achievements and lamenting our downfalls. At least one article included a pun on the word I missed, ‘grognard’, since its definition concerns Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo. And they even ran with a congratulatory ad featuring a huge picture of me grinning in a pretty dress. The rhetoric in the headlines and articles focused on local pride—I distinctly remember being referred to as one of the last Texans standing. It seems, then, that newspapers are steadfast, at least for now, in their support of the bee due to a sense of pride that is twofold: first in the performance of their local spellers, and second in the legacy of the bee itself, which is inextricable from the tradition of the American newspaper.
Assuming that the spelling bee will not dissolve as an institution—which is a possibility given that last year’s bee ended in a tie after the two champions exhausted all the words the panelists selected for them—it’s uncertain how long newspapers will choose to, or even be able to, continue their legacy in the Bee. For years, newspapers have occupied a front row seat at the National Spelling Bee, quite literally, as they send their reporters and camera crews to the front of the D.C. audience each year, and then hop onstage during breaks to capture the goofy antics of the spellers. Newspapers’ continued involvement will depend on the changing role of newspapers in American society, but still, I hope they stick around, if only for the spellers. There’s something charming about newspapers’ overwhelming pride in their local spellers that just can’t be recreated by any other kind of sponsor.
Photo Credits: Flickr/Themightyquill

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