When what is now the Scripps National Spelling Bee began in 1925, it lacked, dare we say, the buzz it has today. No television, no Twitter and no way to know there would one day be a wildly popular movie, "Akeelah and the Bee."
The Louisville Courier-Journal sponsored the first winner, Frank Neuhauser, and in every year since -- excluding 1998, when a stationery supply company in Jamaica backed the winner -- a newspaper has sponsored the winning speller. Young Frank won with the word "gladiolus," a widely cultivated plant of the iris family. Appropriate, perhaps, in the sense the national spelling bee was just starting to take root.
Today, it's possible that many of the 281 young regional spelling champions sitting down at computers Tuesday for the first round of the Bee, never have held a newspaper in their small hands. Newspapers, however, still have their hands on the Bee, as two-thirds of the sponsorships for local/regional competitions come from newspapers, said Paige Kimble, the Bee's executive director.
But times are changing. Just as today's competitors are more likely to read a newspaper on an iPad, iPhone or laptop than in print, the regional spelling bees that produce the national Bee's competitors are beginning to bloom in new places.
"The Scripps National Spelling Bee came up through the decades as an exclusively newspaper-sponsored event," said Kimble, who won the national contest in 1981 as Paige Pipkin and was sponsored by the El Paso Herald-Post.
In the 30-plus years since Kimble won with the word "sarcophagus" -- a stone coffin -- newspapers have been fighting for their very survival. Sponsorships of community events such as spelling bees became less of a priority; some of the newspapers that still provide sponsorships now have partners.
Recently, universities have begun to fill the void. This year, 17 colleges and universities sponsored events and the schools' power of brand ranged from Three Rivers College, a community college in Poplar Bluff, Mo., to Duke University in Durham, N.C., which sponsored its first regional bee in 2010 and is something of a flagship for university involvement.
"It really blew up in the 2011-2012 season," said Chris Kemper, spokesman for the Bee, which is administered on a nonprofit basis by The E.W. Scripps Co. in Cincinnati. "That's when nine universities hopped on board."
Lou Rollins, director of special projects at Duke's Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, said Scripps contacted the school in 2008. That was intriguing enough, but the Durham County public schools were for it, too.
"That was the magic, knowing Durham schools wanted it and Scripps reaching out to a university that had a community focus," she said. "We loved the idea."
Indiana University in Bloomington also was a good fit, with IU's High School Journalism Institute and Department of Education co-sponsoring a regional bee the last two years.
"One thing that attracted us is the Scripps name because Scripps is a newspaper name and historically important in journalism," said Teresa White, IU's regional bee coordinator and director of the High School Journalism Institute. "It's a win-win in my eyes."
Said Kimble: "Local universities stepped forward and said, 'Let's lead this in our community.' They have done this for recruiting and as a good community outreach."
Schools such as Duke and IU may not need the regional spelling bees as recruiting tools, but they can't hurt. Brian Werden, a seventh-grader and left-handed pitcher with dreams of playing college baseball, won this year's regional bee at Duke. Now, he can see himself one day throwing his curve and cutter for the Blue Devils.
"I've known for a while Duke is a very good academic school," Brian said. "We went to the campus and it was pretty nice."
Brian's mother, Debbie Werden, believes the value for the schools in bringing all those bright minds to campus years before they make their college decisions is real.
"They give the kids a big gift bag of items," she said. "It definitely puts it in their heads that they might go there one day."
But as Kimble said, "The concept is truly not new. As a child, I remember going to local universities for math and science competitions."
The oldest competitors in the Bee are in the eighth grade -- the youngest competitor this year is 8 -- and the university sponsorships only several years old. So it will be awhile before schools have hard data on the effect of the Bee on attracting students.
Which is fine with Rollins, who spells value for Duke in multiple ways -- including p-e-r-c-e-p-t-i-o-n.
"We can feel the excitement, the energy level, inside the Duke family and outside," she said, adding with a laugh, "I love that Duke connects with the Spelling Bee and not just Duke men's basketball."
FULL COVERAGE of the 2013 Scripps Spelling Bee (http://bit.ly/2013spellingbee)
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