American sports fans love tie scores about as much as flat beer and broken baseball bats flying into the stands. But in the dictionary-dominated corner of competitive spelling, the word “tie” is in danger of defining the word “bee.”
For the last two years, the Scripps National Spelling Bee – which gets under way Wednesday at National Harbor in Maryland with 285 young word nerds from across the country – ended with co-champions celebrating on ESPN amid raining confetti and flashing neon lights. But the draws have drawn scrutiny.
This year’s bee is ratcheting up the competition’s level of difficulty in a rules change designed to decrease the likelihood of two people hoisting one trophy.
No longer will the championship come down to two or three students who take turns spelling words from a pre-determined list of 25 dictionary entries, a rubric that sometimes required the last two standing to each spell 10 or so words right.
Under the new rules, each of the top two or three finalists could conceivably spell up to 25 words correctly. Not only that, but if it turns out that finalists are breezing through their first few words, then judges can offer up tougher ones, unconstrained by the bank of words selected before the competition.
It’s not sudden death. Not a spell-til-dawn vocabulary showdown. But the more rigorous rules could jolt the bee back into the realm of classic American sports. (Okay, “sports.”)
That’s fine with Tejas Muthusamy, 13, a seventh-grader from Richmond, Va., who is competing in the bee for the third time. He watched co-champions, Vanya Shivashankar and Gokul Venkatachalam duke it out last year and Ansun Sujoe and Sriram Hathwar do the same in 2014.
“To me, a tie is kind of boring,” said Tejas Muthusamy, who tied for seventh place last year, and eighth the year before. “It’s kind of discrediting to the bee to have two winners two years in a row. People might perceive that it’s not as hard. But the bee is hard. The first year [in 2014], it was really cool to have a tie, but the second year, it became monotonous. And the third year. . .people will stop watching. I, as well as the general public, really do like the one-winner format.”
But Muthusamy also said he found himself rooting for both Vanya and Gokul to win last year.
“In your heart, you want one person to win, but once it gets to the final two or three, you’re really rooting for them all,” Muthusamy said. “You want all spellers to beat the dictionary. That’s the beauty of the bee.”
Paige Kimble, the bee’s executive director, said that after two consecutive years of co-champions, she heard from some sponsors of the bee who want a lone winner. Others said they loved co-victors and didn’t want the prospect eliminated.
“The path we’ve chosen is the middle-of-the-road path,” she said. “After we declared co-champions for the first time in 50 years, there was a lot of excitement, but also a lot of questions posed to us about whether the bar needed to be raised.”
Kimble stressed the new rules still allow for ties: “The question – and no one has the answer yet – is whether raising the bar like this is sufficient. The level of competition among the most elite spellers has risen to a degree that it’s challenging to find words that challenge them.”
ESPN begins streaming the competition Wednesday, and broadcasts the contest’s final rounds on Thursday evening. Of the 285 contestants, two hail from the District of Columbia; 10 from Maryland; and 13 from Virginia. This year’s bee features the youngest student by grade – a six-year-old first grader from San Angelo, Texas. One eighth grader from Ames, Iowa, is competing for his fourth time; eight kids are coming back for their third; and 61 others are on their second trip.
The winner will collect $40,000 in prize money – $10,000 more than in previous years. The payouts for second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh place will also go up substantially this year.
Since the bee’s inaugural contest in 1925, co-winners have been declared in 1950, 1957 and 1962, along with the last two years.
Kimble said she is not sure what circumstances led to the co-championships in the 1950s and 1960s. When she won the contest in 1981, there was no provision for joint victors. You had to win it outright, no matter how long it took.
She said the 1997 bee went back and forth for 23 words before Rebecca Sealfon won, prompting fans and others in the bee community to argue that if both finalists last that long, both should win. For the 1999 bee, a co-winner provision was formally put into the rule books.
Hardly any major sports allow for draws anymore, the most prominent – and frequently mocked – outlier being soccer. Professional ice hockey and college football used to permit ties. No longer.
Ed Placey, a coordinating producer for ESPN who oversees the network’s broadcast of the bee, said neither he nor his colleagues complained about the 2014 and 2015 ties. Last year the equivalent of about one million people watched the finals from their homes, he said.
“The first year we had one, we actually thought it was pretty cool,” he said. “Then it happened two years in a row, and that’s when the conversation started about what can [the bee] do to make it harder to have a tie.”
Cooper Komatsu, 13, an eighth grader from Culver City, Calif., who tied for 11th place last year in the bee, hopes this year’s contest yields a champion, with no “co” attached.
“The spelling bee is meant to have a winner. If it doesn’t, I don’t know. Like in the NBA finals, okay, they’re both winners? It would be weird,” said Komatsu, who with a teammate this year won the North American School Scrabble Championship tournament. “Last year, the girls were rooting for Vanya and the boys were rooting for Gokul. I’d say I was a Gokul fan rather than a Vanya fan. He was just really kinda cool. He was really collected. I guess I want one winner this year.”