When spellers became athletes

The delightful story of how the Scripps National Spelling Bee found a home on ESPN.

For a few days each spring, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is the most talked about competition in the country. What began in 1925 as a promotional event for the Louisville Courier-Journal and the few other newspapers invited to sponsor contestants, is now an established pop culture phenomenon. Aside from the Bee’s inherent drama and suspense, its popularity is in large part due to its partnership with ESPN. The sports network began broadcasting the Bee in its entirety in 1994, with the first broadcast reaching a high of 947,000 homes, according to a Modesto Bee newspaper story that year. And while it wasn’t the first channel to bring the Bee to the airwaves, it was the first to do so consistently and from beginning to end. Instead of being used as filler content during a slow news day, the Bee became a television event not unlike ESPN’s other championship programs.

The 1984 Scripps National Spelling Bee winner, 13-year-old Daniel Greenblatt, shows off his trophy to gathered reporters.

The 1984 Scripps National Spelling Bee winner, 13-year-old Daniel Greenblatt, shows off his trophy to gathered reporters.

Open to elementary and middle school students ages 15 and younger, the Bee hosts up to 291 spellers in Washington, DC every year, each contestant having first won a regional bee and sponsorship from their local newspaper, TV station, university, or nonprofit organization. After passing through written and multiple-choice preliminary tests, the remaining spellers go to the final rounds, where they must correctly spell one word at a time onstage. From there, the number of spellers dwindles with each round until one is left standing. This year’s winner will receive $40,000 in cash, an engraved trophy, a $25,000 savings bond, trips to New York City and Los Angeles for talk show appearances, and, endearingly, a collection of encyclopedias. In total, ESPN networks will dedicate over 15 hours of broadcast time to the event.

The Outline spoke to Scripps CEO Rich Boehne (who was instrumental in bringing the Bee to ESPN), Katie McCrimmon (color commentator for the 1994 broadcast), and Ashley O’Connor (ESPN’s senior manager of programming and acquisitions) about how the nation’s most popular academic competition came to share the same stage as its biggest athletic competitions.

“Since when is spelling a sport? Since Scripps Howard and ESPN entered into a three-year agreement, starting this year, to broadcast the final rounds of the bee. A Scripps Howard spokesman said no money changed hands.” — Jill Young Miller, Sun-Sentinel, 1994

Rich Boehne: I was a business reporter [when] Scripps invited me to join the corporate staff [in 1988] to help it become a public company. The CEO at the time asked me if I would fold in the Spelling Bee, which I thought it looked like an awful lot of fun. The Bee, when I got involved, was a somewhat smaller kind of program and it was very print-centric. Nobody much knew who the winner was until the next morning when it was in newspapers across the country. About that time some people — CNN, a few others — got interested and thought, “Hey yeah, we might drag a camera over there and we’ll acknowledge it’s the day of the Bee. And we’ll cut in and out.”

Katie McCrimmon: I won [the Bee] in 1979. And soon after, I went back and worked for the National Spelling Bee folks. I was one of the staffers. And then I was a journalist as a reporter for The Rocky Mountain News in Denver which funnily enough was the same newspaper that had sponsored me way back when when I was a speller. CNN aired it first and they needed somebody who knew about spelling. So I first [provided color commentary], I think it was for one or two years, for CNN. Anderson Cooper was one of the people who was an anchor at the time during the show.

Rich Boehne: So you had some TV coverage that was very hit or miss. I’d sit and watch and see a little snippet of some coverage and then somebody would cut out and go somewhere else. And I thought, How do we create a real television experience for this incredible event that when you would sit and watch — the drama and the kids and the family and the pronouncer — just looked like it was an event that people could enjoy beyond those sitting in the room and definitely beyond just still pictures?

We started thinking about television. We started talking to people about who would be interested in this as a beginning-to-end [broadcast] and ESPN got interested very quickly. We had a very good contact with ESPN and we had somebody we worked with who understood the sports television world that I was not personally terribly familiar with. So I was probably not unlike some others when the when first the idea of ESPN came up. I said, “Uhh, ESPN? Would they be interested?”

Colin Qualters competes in the preliminary rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2007.

Colin Qualters competes in the preliminary rounds of the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 2007.

We spent a long time talking with ESPN producers and our folks [to figure out], “Does this make any sense?” [We’ve] got something that’s precious and involves kids and not something that you can just recklessly experiment with. I mean you absolutely couldn’t do that. For the first year, when we said to all the sponsors that ESPN is going to cover the finals of the Spelling Bee, people were definitely perplexed and confused as to why that made a good match. All kinds of people were confused.

“I can’t quite figure out [why ESPN broadcast the Bee]. Maybe it’s the agony of defeat.” — spelling bee pronouncer Alex Cameron, Orlando Sentinel, 1994

Katie McCrimmon: I don’t think CNN had the idea at all of doing solid broadcasting of the Bee. And then ESPN did have that idea. And I remember thinking that that was really silly. I couldn’t imagine that sports fans could possibly be interested in spelling. And boy, were we wrong. It turned out to be this hit in sports and sports bars. Maybe it’s everybody’s inner nerd, they were trying to spell along. Or the opposite, where people aren’t very good spellers and they enjoyed watching young kids struggle with these awful words.

Rich Boehne: To [ESPN] it was an alternative. It could run at a time when they didn’t have an NBA final or something going on. And they liked the kids and the competition and the whole texture and the history of the Bee. So what we did then was an exclusive deal. ESPN had the live rights to the finals and in exchange for that, they don’t cut out [to another program]. We create a show out of the finals.

2012 Scripps National Spelling bee winner Snigdha Nandipati raises her trophy with Rich Boehne, President and CEO of The E.W. Scripps Company.

2012 Scripps National Spelling bee winner Snigdha Nandipati raises her trophy with Rich Boehne, President and CEO of The E.W. Scripps Company.

Ashley O’Connor: It is pure competition, obviously not in the stick-and-ball [way] that ESPN is typically known for, but it is the purest form of competition. It’s fun. It’s pop culture. It’s the best and brightest of the next generation. And quite honestly, it’s fun for all ages.

“I turned on ESPN today, and they were televising the Spelling Bee. Can it get any worse? The only thing possible would be to televise the Harrisburg Senators games.”— caller to the Harrisburg, PA Patriot News, 1994

Rich Boehne: The first couple of years were extremely bumpy trying to figure out how you translate something like this to television. Do you do it just silently in the back corner like you’re covering golf or is it a more active experience? And so it took us a few years to get that figured out. But [ESPN was] absolutely the right partner because they know how to package and promote the competition and make it interesting and profile the kids. Also remember, ESPN, this is some years ago. They weren’t at that point quite the established brand they are today. So they were definitely as entrepreneurial as we were.

Justin Carroll (R) celebrates winning the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee over competitor Marjory Lazery. Carroll's winning words were 'Hirumvine' and 'Xanthosis'.

Justin Carroll (R) celebrates winning the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee over competitor Marjory Lazery. Carroll's winning words were 'Hirumvine' and 'Xanthosis'.

Katie McCrimmon: To their credit, ESPN didn’t try to dumb it down. They really wanted to present the contest in its true form. The Spelling Bee folks tailored a few things to them in terms of scheduling. But I didn’t have to change anything. They had wonderful co-anchors who I worked with who were used to sports and they knew how to keep it moving. You don’t have fouls or this or that. But spelling is sort of a mystery to people. So [my job was] demystifying how spellers figure out a word. They would ask me, “Why is that speller asking that question?” And [I] could explain that if they find out that a word is Greek, then they’re going to get a little hint about whether an “i” sound is going to be spelled with an “i” or “y.” If it’s Greek it’s more likely that it’s a “y” rather than the “i” sound.

“ESPN...stopped the bee for commercials. ‘It is definitely taking longer, and I am sure it’s a strain on some of them,’ said Walter Dekin, a parent from Nevada. ‘They’ve been in their seats since before 8 a.m.’” — Jill Young Miller, Sun-Sentinel, 1994

Rich Boehne: The first year, we were all ready to go and I said, “Oh, we got to hook up some monitors out so the audience can also see what’s on the screen.” Because if you’ve watched it, there are vignettes and stories and things like that at the break. Never occurred to anybody that there'd be a delay between what was live and what was on the screen. So as soon as the show started it was pretty broad confusion because some of the audience was looking at the monitor, and what was happening there was happening seven seconds behind what was happening on stage. People [were] clapping at the wrong time and we just had to quickly unplug all the monitors and go right on. Those of us who work in television absolutely know there's a delay. Why it didn't occur to everybody at that moment? Things just happen.

Katie McCrimmon: I was really impressed with the production people. Because with a [basketball or football] game, you know how it's going to last. With spelling, there was a lot of uncertainty. They never could know for sure how long it would take. Sometimes they get into part of the list that was just really tough and the poor spellers would go down really fast. Or other times it went on and on.

Rich Boehne: [Commercial breaks were] the biggest [change] because the Bee runs in rounds, a round being the remaining spellers go through [and spell their words]. You try to take commercial breaks just at the end of the rounds. Trouble was the rounds get shorter and shorter as you go. So just sort of trying to figure out how to handle the pacing [was a challenge]. If you watch the show now, we just take breaks along the way. Culture is sort of accustomed to commercial breaks and it seems normal now.

Katie McCrimmon: I remember that they got really good ratings. And I was surprised that it was a big hit. ESPN was really smart to figure this out that it would be great live TV. I think they really got it that the kids would be so natural, they wouldn’t be performing for the cameras or anything. They would just be themselves and that made for good TV.

“‘I’ve covered the NFL, Wimbledon and the Olympics, but in my mother’s eyes — those of a retired English teacher — I’ve now finally made it,’ said Robin Roberts, who will be host for the bee from Washington, D.C.” — Jack Bogaczyk, The Roanoke Times, 1994

Rich Boehne: [In the second year of broadcasting on ESPN], what we strongly reinforced was that the pronouncer is in control of the contest. We quickly concluded that the rhythm and the sense of the contest should be controlled by the pronouncer and the officials. We got to a format pretty quick but it was just one of those, “Where do you start? What should this be like?”

Katie McCrimmon: There never used to be a time limit but one girl one year just went on and on. She was really good at taking every possible second. And after her they came up with a time limit [of two minutes]. She was really dramatic so it was good TV too. This is reality TV before we had reality TV.

Arvind V. Mahankali stands in falling confetti after winning the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Arvind V. Mahankali stands in falling confetti after winning the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Rich Boehne: The kids themselves, they adapted pretty quick. And probably because of the intimacy of television, their personalities are seen much better than they are in the room. You just get such a wonderful sense of who they are as people.

Ashley O’Connor: Everybody talked about trying to play along at home. A few years ago we started doing a play along version of the Spelling Bee that initially aired on ESPN3. We just wouldn’t put the word up on the screen. Sometimes it’s listed as a multiple choice. Now it includes a lot of additional content around the speller, like what their previous words were, and their name, their grade, how many finals have they been in.

Katie McCrimmon: I do remember way back in the old days, probably in the early ’80s, there was an interest by some broadcasters to air the Bee. And the old-school folks were really concerned. They didn’t want to take advantage of the students, and they weren’t sure that TV was the right medium for this kind of serious academic event. I don’t think [being broadcast has] harmed the Bee at all. I think the integrity of the contest is all there. It’s just tougher than ever [for contestants] because of all that publicity.

Rich Boehne: Today if you’re in Washington and you go by any place that’s got a television on, from sports bars to restaurants to hotel lobbies to the airport, people are gathered and watching the Bee and talking about the kids and who they think’s going to win. And that’s just really fun to see. I can’t think of many other events with that large of an audience that celebrates words and language and a foundation of literacy. Can you? Today that opportunity to be in front of that audience is a pretty big motivator. Some of them have become almost folk heroes from their time on TV.

“For winning the state bee, Kyle received a Webster’s dictionary and expense money for a weeklong trip to Washington. More than 200 contestants are expected. Kyle hopes to survive until the national bee’s second day so he can appear on a live cable television broadcast of the final rounds. ‘I want to be on ESPN,’ Kyle said. ‘That’s the only goal I have.’’’ — Donna McGuire, Kansas City Star, 1995