Is the Spelling Bee Actually a Sporting Event?

I just sat in the media room at the Spelling Bee as a pair of Korean journalists interviewed an American freelancer about this cultural phenomenon. One of the questions was, what makes this a sport, more or less. ↵

↵The answer? Well, ESPN, chiefly. Plus Erin Andrews, with whom I had lunch today. (More on that tomorrow.) The kids themselves have a sort of strange relationship toward the ESPN-ness of this whole event: they talk about wanting to advance to the finals on ABC tomorrow night, but they don't say much about ESPN. They do, however, wear their complimentary T-shirts, which describe tomorrow as the "Best Day of the Year to Watch SportsCenter." ↵

↵

↵ ↵

↵

↵Some of them say they have siblings who like sports. And I'm sure some of them like sports themselves, though not the ones I've met thus far. ↵

↵

↵"Sports is, like, athletics," said Caroline Bell of California. "This isn't athletic at all." ↵

↵

↵Which makes the whole ESPN thing a bit odd. But there are definitely some sports-like characteristics. There are favorites; Darren Rovell listed four, complete with the equally sports-like meaningless stats: "Spellers of Indian descent have won six out of the last 10 years ... The girls have only won two times in the last decade." There are betting odds, including whether the winner will wear glasses, whether the winner will be an only child, and whether anyone will puke. There's that media buzz; the lobby of the Grand Hyatt here in downtown Washington is crawling with reporters and TV cameras. ↵

↵

↵And there are underdogs, kids who are like the SWAC or OVC champion in March, kids who are actually just happy to be here. They know they're not North Carolina or UConn, and they're not going to pretend otherwise. They're proud of being Middle Tennessee. ↵

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↵Like, I asked Juan Jose del Valle Coello what his chances were. ↵

↵

↵"Point 00000001 percent," he told me. "Not a high chance." ↵

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↵Ditto from Bell, a 14-year-old from California, who said her total study time before leaving home was about an hour. I asked her if she considered going all out, like the Sidharth Chands of the world. ↵

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↵"Yeah, I thought about it," she told me, "but I decided it wasn't really worth it. I was already at the National Spelling Bee, I already won $100." ↵

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↵Remember that next time someone tries to tell you how much purer amateur athletics are than the pros. Even at this level, it's all about the Benjamins. Or Benjamin, I guess. ↵

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↵For more of Dan Steinberg, visit his blog with The Washington Post, D.C. Sports Bog. ↵

↵

This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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