Don't look now, but it's almost time for the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The 519 young spellers who qualified for this year's contest will face off in front of a live studio audience in Washington D.C. over a three-day period, and anybody who wants to tune in to the tournament can watch it on ESPN. But what prize do the spelling bee winners get?
The answer is: Quite a few! The first place winner at the Scripps National Spelling Bee will take home a $42,500 cash prize, which includes $40,000 from Scripps and an additional $2,500 from the folks at Merriam-Webster. They'll also receive a complete reference library from Merriam-Webster, $400 worth of reference works from Encyclopædia Britannica, trips to New York City and Hollywood to appear on Live With Kelly & Ryan and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, respectively, and last but not least, an engraved trophy.
The prize money for winning the spelling bee has fluctuated quite a bit over time. In 1926, the first-place winner took home $1,000, according to the St. Petersburg Times; however, that prize was reduced to $500 in 1933 during the Great Depression, and was only raised to $1,000 again in 1956, according to the Wilmington Morning Star. In 1987, the first-place winner received $1,500, according to the Toledo Blade, and by 2005, the grand prize was $5,000, the Associated Press reports.
But even when accounting for inflation, the 2018 contest presents a much bigger financial opportunity for contestants than the tournament did in its early years. The $1,000 prize offered in 1926, for instance, would only be worth a little over $14,000 in 2018 — just one-third of the actual money this year's winner will take home.
Although Scripps has hosted the spelling bee since 1941, the first contest was originally organized by the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1925, according to Scripps. Aside from a three-year hiatus during World War II, it's been held every year since.
It's changed in several ways over time, however, and not just in regard to the prize money. The first contest featured only nine contestants, according to ABC News; by 1987, a whopping 185 children had entered the contest, according to the Blade, requiring the organizers to split the bee into two days and eliminate the opening practice round that preceded past competitions.
In 2013, Scripps instituted a major change when it added a vocabulary section to the bee for the first time. This was controversial among some contestants, who argued that it represented a deviation from the traditionally spelling-focused contest. However, National Spelling Bee Director Paige Kimble defended the decision, telling the Boston Globe that the goal of the competition "is not only to help students improve their spelling but also to increase their vocabulary, learn concepts, and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives."
Public interest in the bee has gradually grown over time. Back in 1930, only the last hour of the competition was broadcast (over the radio, by NBC, according to Scripps). Since then, the contest has been aired in full on CNN and ESPN, and was the subject of several successful films in the 2000s, including Bee Season, Akeelah & The Bee and the award-winning documentary Spellbound.
Past spelling bee winners have parlayed their victories into even greater success. Pratyush Buddiga only took home $12,000 after winning the 2002 contest, but he built a career as a star poker player years later. While he hasn't revealed how much he's earned at the poker table, Card Player estimates that Buddiga took home over $6 million in winnings before retiring in 2017.