Once again, stellar young spellers in the Twin Cities find themselves in a predicament. Champions of school and district spelling bees across Minneapolis, St. Paul and their suburbs in six counties are out of luck if they were hoping to advance to the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
No sponsor has emerged to organize or foot the bill for a regional spelling bee.
Sad to say, this has become a familiar routine around here in the late fall/early winter: More than once, schools and spellers — after organizing their own bees and spending countless hours studying word lists — have found out that the competition ends here. Practically speaking, no easy path exists for local students to advance to nationals.
Scripps, the promoter of the national bee dating to 1925, seeks regional sponsors for competitions to find the best spellers in their respective regions. Those spellers compete to represent each region on the national stage. This year that contest will be held May 28 to June 3 in National Harbor, Md.
Each sponsor, in addition to coordinating its regional competition — usually in March — pays travel expenses for the winner and one adult. Scripps puts the overall price tag for sponsorship at about $5,000; some sponsors pay more, some a little less.
Four other sponsors — in Rochester, Mankato, Fergus Falls and Staples — are covering the majority of the counties in Minnesota. Meanwhile, the state’s major metropolitan area will not be represented at the national contest, broadcast live each year on ESPN.
We’ve been in this position before. Last year, when the absence of a sponsor was publicized in January, Minnesota Public Radio swooped in and graciously saved the day. Unfortunately, MPR is unable to do so again this year. Back in 2004, the Star Tribune stepped in and ended up sponsoring the bee for four years. The newspaper department that oversaw the project no longer exists. In the intervening years, the Minneapolis law firm Lockridge Grindal Nauen served as sponsor for five bees and Augsburg College for three.
Nashville took another approach: Last year, the NFL’s Tennessee Titans stepped in as sponsor for middle Tennessee, becoming the first professional sports team to sponsor a regional bee. It wasn’t a big leap for an organization that runs on competition, and the team extended its sponsorship for this year, too.
All these sponsors are among the heroes that, historically, have scrambled and hustled — often at the 11th hour — to keep local spelling competitions alive. But what this region needs is a consistent, dedicated sponsorship for the long term.
Granted, being a sponsor involves more than writing a check. Someone needs to answer calls and e-mails. Print programs and lists. Recruit volunteer judges. Manage many details of running a metrowide event. It is a big task but a manageable one.
Perhaps the solution is a collaboration of cosponsors. For example: One sponsor provides an event venue free of charge; another provides paper and printing; another offers a staff member or two and a dedicated e-mail or phone number, to field questions and coordinate communication among schools and districts; one pays travel expenses for the winner and a parent. Many of the regional bees across the country are put together through the collaboration of groups who each contribute a piece of the puzzle.
A metropolitan area with six professional sports teams — and a billion-dollar stadium in downtown Minneapolis — should be able to scrape together a few grand once a year for a well-established, much-loved and much-publicized competition of the academic kind.
Potential sponsors can find information at www.spellingbee.com. Time is running out, but someone still could save the day.
Kelly Maynard is a nurse at Hennepin County Medical Center, a part-time copy editor at the Star Tribune and a longtime spelling bee coordinator and enthusiast.