Dev Shah's dream to return to Scripps National Spelling Bee came true in a soccer stadium.
Dev spent five hours outside spelling on a cold, windy February day, with occasional rain showers. He eventually finished fourth in the regional bee that he had to compete in the first time.
Dev, a seventh-grader of 13 years old, said that winning the regional was difficult enough without Orlando. "It basically represents a third Florida. That was stressful. I began studying extra, but it didn’t work out in end.
The National Spelling Bee is returning -- in full at its usual venue outside Washington -- Dev's experiences show how the pandemic continues. Dev's stories illustrate how it affects kids who have spent years training to compete for spelling the top prize. Schools and sponsors have stopped supporting the bee, the regions have been consolidated, and the bee now has less than half of the spellers it had three year ago.
Grace Walters, who was a former speller and coached three of the eight co-champs in 2019, said that COVID is "a sign that the bee that used be and the spelling one that is now" and that it marks a significant shift between the two. I don't know whether that's a good thing or not. But I try to be positive about it."
Another big change was that Scripps, a Cincinnati-based company, partnered with ESPN to broadcast the competition on its own channels, ION (and Bounce). LeVar Burton, an actor and literacy advocate, was hired to host the broadcast. He will interview spellers backstage and their families. Zaila Avantgarde, last year's champion will also be present as an analyst.
Scripps had 245 regional sponsors for 2020's bee, but that number was eventually canceled by the pandemic. This year, the number of regional sponsors is 198. The bee runs from Tuesday through Thursday.
J. Michael Durnil (the bee's executivedirector) stated that many of the sponsors are still with us and have shared their concerns about the pandemic. "Some of our sponsors re-aligned their missions and the bee might not have fit in. They may have lost their person power and had a rethink of their core business. The bee wasn't part of that. It's been a huge reset in many areas.
Although newspapers were once the main sponsor of regional bees, they lost their relevance as a media outlet. Instead, a variety of nonprofits and government agencies became sponsors. Dev was sponsored by Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing in 2020 and 21. Dev had to travel from Seminole to Orlando to compete in the open-air contest. Judges shivered.
He said that they even switched to vocabulary for 20 minutes, but then realized they were getting the spellings wrong. After five hours, your concentration starts to drop. You start losing your stamina."
The sponsor gap has been filled by pro sports franchises. The NFL's Carolina Panthers host an enormous regional bee, which sends four spellers to North Carolina and two to South Carolina. The Tennessee Titans do it for the majority of their state. Scripps also ran five regional bees to help children who didn't have a sponsor.
Scripps encourages sponsors from larger regions to send multiple children to the bee. Sponsoring one speller costs $3,900 Sponsoring two spellers costs $7,500 and three costs $10,000.
This year's bees are smaller due to a drop in sponsors. A wild-card program was offered to spellers from difficult regions in the 2018 and 2019 bees. The first year of the program saw Karthik Nemmani, a Walters student and wild card from the talent-rich Dallas region, win the bee.
In 2019, however, more than half the 562 spellers at the bee were wild card spellers. Many of these kids weren't competitive at national level and many of them were younger. Scripps planned to reduce the program's size in 2020. Durnil was appointed as the replacement for the long-serving executive director of the bees.
Durnil stated that the opportunity was being considered as a pay for play type of opportunity. This is contrary to the mission and heart of the bee.
This leaves the bee this year with 234 spellers. All of them qualified on merit. Many familiar faces are present. Akash Vukoti (13-year-old San Angelo, Texas native) is competing in the fifth edition of the event. He originally qualified as a first grader. Each of the fourteen-year olds Maya Jadhav from Fitchburg (Wisconsin) and Harini Logan, 14 years, will be making their fourth appearances in San Antonio, Texas.
The competition ends when the spellers reach ninth grade. This means that the sixth-graders who were qualified in 2019 did not get to participate in the "Bee Week" in 2019. Last year, only the top 11 spellers participated in the finals in person at Walt Disney World.
Harini stated, "It's an opportunity, I think, that all eighth-graders in 2022 will get to have that chance that the previous two years didn't have." "Having that experience as our final, we are very, very lucky for that."