WASHINGTON - When a competition goes prime time, the gambling industry cannot be far behind, even when the participants are little kids spelling big words.
Will the winner be wearing glasses? Will it be a boy or girl? Will the final word have an "e" in it? Those were just some of the betting propositions available online Thursday as the Scripps National Spelling Bee produced its usual anxious moments on the way to its first-ever evening finish.
"This is the first time we have offered it proper," said Simon Noble, CEO of PinnacleSports.com. "We had so many requests from customers. We scratched our heads and asked, 'Is it something we can do or not?'"
Noble said his company had received about $70,000 in bets on seven propositions as of noon Thursday, when the final day of competition began. That is far short of the haul for, say, "American Idol," but comparable to the wagers received for this week's first-round matches at the French Open tennis tournament.
"We're surprised it is that much, to be honest," Noble said.
Gamblers' interest was inevitable in a competition that has been televised on ESPN for 13 years and has spawned at least three movies and a Broadway play. ABC planned to broadcast the finals in a two-hour prime-time special, a first.
The influence of money was evident throughout the hotel where the competition was held. Sponsors had booths in the lobby, and the competition itself was interrupted frequently with announcements such as, "We're out one minute and 30 seconds" - a delicate way of saying it was time for yet another commercial break.
The bee's winner was to receive more than $42,000 in cash and prizes.
The notion that bets were being placed on the performances of middle-school kids was a bit much for some.
"I'm speechless," said bee director Paige Kimble, when shown a list of PinnacleSports' propositions. "I think I've seen everything, but, wow, I was not aware that was happening. I guess it's one of the side-effect consequences of popularity."
Las Vegas does not want to touch the bee, at least not officially. The regulations of the Nevada Gaming Control Board specifically allow wagering only on athletic events and horse racing.
"The general notion of betting on Little Leaguers or kids is pretty much frowned upon," said Dan O'Brien, a bookmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants. "It's the spirit of the code."
Noble said his company thought "long and hard" before including the bee on its Web site. He decided against posting odds on individual competitors because of their ages, despite queries from some of the children's hometown newspapers.
"We didn't want to go there," Noble said. "Obviously, it's a very sensitive subject."
Instead he came up with categories he considered to be "incredibly generic and a little bit of fun," such as the 4-to-7 odds that the winner would be wearing glasses.
"A lot of the odds we took a guess at," he said.