Spelling bee fans who have dreamed of watching Snigdha Nandipati battle Kaavya Shivashankar or Sukanya Roy duke it out with Anamika Veeramani will soon get their wish. The former national spelling champions and many others are expected to participate in the inaugural season of the long-awaited Spelling Premier League (SPL).
Modeled after the hugely successful Indian Premier League (IPL), the professional spelling league will debut next fall with teams in eight American cities. The league, which will feature former winners of the National Spelling Bee, as well as other super spellers, has signed a lucrative TV contract with NBC. The network already dominates the TV ratings with “Sunday Night Football,” and is expected to crush its competition by adding “Saturday Night Spelling.”
“We’re excited about the potential of the SPL,” said Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group. “It’s going to be a high-tech, high-intensity version of the National Spelling Bee that will keep viewers on the edge of their seats.”
Players will get only 30 seconds to spell each word and the audience will get to watch all the live action, as well as instant replays, from 12 different angles. “We expect to use our Judge-Cam quite a bit,” Lazarus said. “That’s an angle you don’t see too often. We’ll also give you some great shots from the Parent-Cam, as well as the Younger Sibling-Cam. And don’t forget about the overhead shots from the Goodyear Blimp.”
During each match, one speller will be “mic’d up,” allowing viewers to listen in on conversations in the speller seating area. “If you’ve ever wondered what the spellers say to each other after one of them has successfully spelled a word, you’ll love the ‘mic’d up’ feature,” Lazarus said. “You’ll hear spellers talking smack, one of them saying, ‘Nice job, but I learned that word in kindergarten,’ and the other responding, ‘Oh yeah? Well, my dog could have spelled your word.’”
Actress Tori Spelling has been appointed honorary commissioner of the new league. At a press conference in New York, she announced the names of the eight teams, assigned to two divisions. In the Northern Spelling Division (NSD) will be the New York Vocabulists, Chicago Etymologists, Washington Wizkids and Boston Brains. In the Southern Spelling Division (SSD) will be the Georgia Geniuses, Memphis Memorizers, San Francisco Spellkings, and Dallas Dictionary-Studiers.
Eight businessmen, including three Indian-Americans and one Pakistani-American, have paid $5 million each to be franchise owners in the SPL, betting part of their fortune on America’s seemingly insatiable appetite for spelling.
“It may seem like a gamble to most people,” said Raj Bhattal, owner of the Etymologists, “but in my family, as in many other Indian-American families, the National Spelling Bee is like the Super Bowl, except that we don’t get to see Janet Jackson’s breasts during halftime.”
The inaugural SPL player draft will take place on July 30. This year’s National Spelling Bee champion Arvind Mahankali is expected to be the top draft pick, but he’ll first have to prove himself at the SPL scouting combine in Indianapolis. What’s at stake is a $500,000 signing bonus, as well as the adulation of thousands of spelling-crazed pre-teen girls.
Each team will bring five draft picks and another five undrafted free agents to a three-week training camp in August. Half the players will be cut at the end of training camp – asked to turn in their dictionaries.
Other rules that will govern the SPL:
— Each team will have a salary cap of $5 million for players, with another $1 million allocated to three coaches and $100 to as many as 10 cheerleaders.
— The trading deadline will be Oct. 15. All trade agreements must include parents’ signatures.
— All players must wear Nike spelling gear, including jerseys, pants and prescription glasses.
— Players will be tested randomly for performance enhancing drugs. Positive tests may result in suspensions and, for second offenses, letters to parents.
— Each match will last up to 15 rounds, followed by (if necessary) a sudden-death tie-breaker in which players will be asked to spell words backwards. If players are still tied after 20 rounds, they will be asked to spell random names from an Indian phone book.