The Scripps National Spelling Bee is R-E-T-U-R-N-I-N-G this year with a new format ahead of its in-person championship.
Last year's bee was canceled for the first time since World War II due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers determined there was no clear path forward to conduct the bee safely at its typical Maryland host site amid the ongoing pandemic. The decision delivered a crushing blow to eighth-grade contestants looking to compete in the bee for one final time. Many spellers follow rigorous study regimens to reach the bee and become the national champion. Contestants are no longer eligible to compete in the bee as high schoolers.
Rather than cramming the entire competition into the traditional Bee Week, this year's preliminary, quarterfinal and semifinal rounds will be hosted virtually and spread out in the weeks leading up to the finals. A group of 10–12 finalists will compete in person at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.
The preliminary rounds will be held in mid-June and the semifinals on June 27, both of which will be broadcast online by ESPN. The network will air the July 8 finals on ESPN2 in a primetime slot.
"Since its beginnings nearly 100 years ago, the Scripps National Spelling Bee and its spellers have inspired audiences across the globe with a compelling combination of academic excellence and engaging entertainment," Adam Symson, president and chief executive officer of The E.W. Scripps Company, said in a statement. "Now, as the world continues to adapt to an ongoing pandemic, Scripps is committed to reimagining the beloved competition in a way that safely allows our exceptional spellers to continue this iconic tradition on the national stage."
Scripps said it decided to limit the in-person finals to no more than 12 spellers out of consideration for the health and safety of participants, their families and everyone working at the event.
According to the Associated Press, the 2021 bee will be limited to around 200 spellers—a 64% reduction from the 2019 event.
The 2019 edition of the spelling bee ended in an eight-way tie after organizers ran out of challenging words for the finalists.