OXON HILL, Md.—A row of metal detectors guards the hotel ballroom that stages the Scripps National Spelling Bee. There’s less than an hour until the final day kicks off with Round 4, but this main entrance is nearly empty—a trio of security guards are the only people here. I ask the woman who searches my bag if they check for dictionaries or giant flash cards with letters on them.
She looks at me blankly. No, she says. “Mostly knives and pepper spray, stuff like that.”
All of the bee’s latter rounds receive the same slickly produced high-stakes treatment on ESPN each year. For the very final rounds, at night, this seems to make sense—it’s the most intense competition, the biggest crowd, the primetime broadcast. But right now, it is 9:30 a.m. with 40 spellers remaining and Fall Out Boy blasting to pump up rows of empty seats. There are anxious parents, bored-looking siblings, and hardly anyone else apart from staffers and television crewmembers.
I’d been amazed a few days earlier when I looked up “national spelling bee tickets” on a whim only to discover that there were no tickets. No tickets at all! Anyone could just walk right in to this prestigious nationally broadcast event featuring our nation’s most talented youth! Wild! How blessed was I to be only a moderately-priced cab ride away from such glory? I couldn’t find anything on the process of securing a seat, but I imagined it would be difficult. A line that started forming hours in advance, probably, or adults holding their own spell-offs to decide line priority, or something. I decided to leave at least 90 minutes early to give myself a chance at getting in.
I left an hour early because I am incapable of getting ready efficiently, but I soon discovered that I could have been three hours late and been completely fine. I should not have been amazed that the National Spelling Bee is not a ticketed event, because it should have been self-evident that there is little-to-no demand to spend a beautiful spring day inside watching unfamiliar preteens melt under pressure over your morning coffee.
Family members are easily identified, both by a tag that declares their speller of choice and also by their conspicuous stress levels. There are very, very few people who seem to be here for anything so ordinary as entertainment. I ask a bee staff member if it’s really so weird to attend simply because you want to. She cheerfully informs me that plenty of people come to watch solely as spelling enthusiasts. I don’t see any of them now. The staff member notes that the majority of these people come for the evening rounds.
It’s only after the better part of a round that I realize that entertainment was the wrong foundation for the question. The bee is captivating, but there is nothing entertaining here. It is extraordinarily uncomfortable peeling back the sheen of production to watch it unfold live during the day—an awkward intimacy in seeing just how tiny the spellers are in person, how harsh the lights and how big the stage for a half-empty room made to seem full on a television broadcast. There are pre-recorded introductions for the kids who are favored or who have the most compelling stories, and their tape plays on an enormous screen above their heads as they stand alone on center-stage below.
The pre-taped versions of the children flash their braces with big smiles and talk about how much they love the Hamilton soundtrack while their real-life counterparts fidget anxiously under the spotlight and wait to be given a word. Each makes the other feel wrong, and it’s hard to know which one to look at.