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National Spelling Bee Adds New Rules To Help Winners Sting The Competition

The 2019 National Spelling Bee ended in an eight-person tie. With this year's changes afoot, a shared title is unlikely.
The 2019 National Spelling Bee ended in an eight-person tie. With this year's changes afoot, a shared title is unlikely.

The Scripps National Spelling Bee will return this June with a new format designed to crank up the competition and crown one, true champion.

On top of other pandemic-inspired modifications, spellers will now face vocabulary questions and, if needed, a tiebreaker round.

In between the usual oral spelling rounds, "word meaning," the new vocabulary portion, will ask the speller to answer a multiple-choice question during the second round of each competition level all the way to the finals.

Also new is the "spell-off": For the July 8 finals, officials can now trigger a lightning round to rule out the possibility of a tie.

If, as time is running down in the last round, there is still no winner, all spellers left standing will be given 90 seconds to spell as many words as possible from a prepared list. Whoever spells the most words correctly wins the title.

J. Michael Durnil, who stepped in as the bee's executive director in March, is overseeing the changes to the 96-year-old competition.

"The Bee's competition format this year – inspired by proactive safety measures as the pandemic evolves – has allowed us to introduce new competition elements, aligned with our regular program review to ensure the competition continues to mature in a way that appropriately challenges the most accomplished spellers in the country," Durnil said in a press release. "The spell-off, if activated, promises to be a gripping moment for both the spellers onstage during the finals and audiences on the edges of their seats at home."

This new feature will almost certainly prevent repeats of past bees, in which reigning spellers had to share their glory. In 2019, a record-busting eight contestants were named co-champions after enduring 20 spelling rounds. All three bees from 2014 through 2016 also ended in a tie.

Durnil told the Associated Press that finding one champion is the goal behind the changes. "I think the spellers don't enter into our competition thinking that they're going to have to share the ultimate distinction of the spelling champion with anybody else," he said. "From a competitive standpoint, we owe it to the spellers to identify the champion of the spelling bee."

Last year's bee was canceled for the first time since World War II due to the coronavirus.

The 2021 live broadcast event is set to kick off virtually on June 12. The July 8 in-person finals will move to a new stage this year, an ESPN complex in Orlando's Disney World Resort.

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