Behind The Scenes

Scripps National Spelling Bee:
Spellbinding drama on ESPN2, ESPN3

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Every year since 1925, except during World War II (1943-1945), about 200-plus young spellers travel here on Memorial Day week to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Since 1994, ESPN has been there to capture the memorable moments from the captivating competition.

Sage Steele

This week, the youngest contestant ever in this competition, six-year-old Lori Anne C. Madison of Woodbridge, Va., joins 277 spellers.

She, like other contestants, will complete computer spelling tests today as part of the preliminaries. The test scores, combined with results from Rounds 2 and 3 airing on ESPN3 Wednesday, will determine the semifinalists who will be seen on ESPN2 and ESPN3 on Thursday, May 31, at 10 a.m. ET. The champion will be crowned during ESPN’s 8 p.m. coverage on Thursday.

Front Row caught up with SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele, television host of the National Spelling Bee, to get her insights on her preparation for the telecast, similarities between the contestants and athletes, and her empathy for the competitors.

How do you prepare to host the National Spelling Bee?
Fortunately, I do not have to worry about spelling any words, so my preparation is much easier. ESPN researchers for the Bee are phenomenal. They hand me a binder with detailed info on each speller — from the pronunciation of their names, which is very crucial, to their parent’s occupations and their favorite movies. After the semifinals, I also participate in interviews with the finalists. Speaking to them and their parents is extremely helpful. It gives me a greater appreciation for how hard they’ve worked and how diverse their interests are. Contrary to popular belief, they are normal kids.

Discuss the differences and similarities between hosting the Spelling Bee and your role on SportsCenter.
It’s truly apples and oranges compared to hosting SportsCenter. It is actually more like doing play-by-play because you’re watching the action, setting up your analyst and knowing when to interject comments and questions. The timing is particularly difficult because I try not to step on Dr. [Jacques] Bailly, the Bee’s official pronouncer. He is phenomenal and the kids consider him a celebrity. So, I want the viewers to hear everything he says.

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How would you compare the spellers to athletes you have covered?
Although being a speller doesn’t make these kids athletes, this is a true competition, and I love watching their competitiveness emerge. They are intense, extremely superstitious with strict “pre-game” rituals and good luck charms — just like so many athletes and coaches with whom I’ve worked over the years. Most importantly, they work extremely hard and make many sacrifices year-round to get to this point. Some 11 million kids begin this competition worldwide, 278 come to Washington, D.C. and just one champion will be crowned.

As a mother yourself, what is your level of empathy for the spellers who misspell their words?
One of my favorite parts of the telecast is when we take the cutaway shots of the parents in the crowd. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes — I would be sick to my stomach with nerves. However, I’ve noticed that their sense of pride overrides everything, and in speaking to some of the parents, they truly beam with pride when talking about their children, just like any other parent does when their child performs well academically or in athletics. I admit, though, there are times I have to hold back my emotions on the telecast when the kids hear that dreaded “ding” and are visibly devastated in that single moment when they are forced to exit the competition.

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