For two days each year, millions of viewers tune in to the Scripps National Spelling Bee to watch kids attempt to spell words like nunatak.
Paul Loeffler, ESPN’s lead spelling bee commentator and analyst, guides viewers through the contest with bizarre tidbits about Latin roots.
Loeffler has been EPSN’s go-to television analyst for the bee for a decade. During matches, Loeffler provides context for words that most Americans have likely never heard of, giving insight into what the speller may be thinking based on small visual ticks or the speller’s questions.
The day after the Bee, Loeffler told Business Insider his prediction for next year’s contest: the back-to-back ties will likely motivate Scripps to rethink the rules of the bee to make ties more difficult.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see changes next year,” Loeffler said, noting that before the last two contests, no one had tied in almost 50 years.
“Maybe I’m selfish, but I would have liked to see that battle rage on for a few more hours.”
Loeffler has been the bee’s main commentator since the contest got bumped up to network TV in 2006. The commentator — who also covers some college football contests for ESPN — was partially recruited because of his own history. He participated in the contest in 1990, finishing in the top 13. Loeffler’s sister also competed in the national competition three times and now works for Scripps.
It’s a challenge to comment on the bee because the show is essentially split between hardcore fans and viewers who aren’t very familiar with the whole spelling bee process.
“There’s the general audience, who hasn’t been at that level of competition but is fascinated by it, and I have to make the crazy obscure minute details make sense,” Loeffler said. “And then there’s also the spelling bee audience that is hyper tuned in to everything going on there and if I say something that rubs them the wrong way, then they’re going to be up in arms.”
Loeffler doesn’t prep much except for getting to know the candidates and studying their bios. He already has an extensive knowledge of how the game works. He has already studied how words are formed, how roots work, and different language rules.
“A lot of it during the competition is just trying to help the viewer understand what might be going on in that speller’s head,” Loeffler said. “So that’s a lot of breaking down the words into what the clues are within the word, why they’re asking a certain question, what part of the word might trip them up.”
Loeffler said that the contest has improved over the last several years. He was particularly impressed with this year’s winners.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever have a year where you have are two that are that good, that experienced, that knowledgeable, that poised.”
“I don’t think I would last very long against some of the kids in there,” Loeffler said.
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