'Jeopardy!' College Championship Is The 'Sport' We Need Right Now

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When the NCAA canceled March Madness, you might have thought you had to wait until next year for the chance to paint your face in your college colors and trash talk to that university down the road.

But never fear because another one of our cherished rites of spring was thankfully recorded back in February, and it's just as much fun as it's always been.

The Ringer's Claire McNear has written all about how the "Jeopardy!" College Championship — this annual almost-but-not-really sporting event — can rescue us from our no-sports world.

KG: OK, so let's get this out of the way right away, because I know there are some people at home saying "Jeopardy!" is not a sport. So give me your best argument for "Jeopardy!" as sport.

CM: [Laughs] All right. Well, I think a lot of casual "Jeopardy!" viewers are surprised to learn just how sport-like the show can be. People think, "OK. If you're preparing to go on 'Jeopardy!,' maybe you make a bunch of flashcards." And that definitely does happen. But, you know, it has become this very serious thing over the last few years. People compare it to like training to be a fighter pilot.

"People compare [training for 'Jeopardy!'] to like training to be a fighter pilot."

Claire McNear

A lot of contestants give up alcohol and caffeine in the weeks before they tape. They rearrange their meal times and eat what they think they will when they're in the studio for their tape day. They rig home buzzer systems and drill themselves over and over, trying to shave off literal hundredths or thousandths of a second from their response time. So it really is a very sport-like competition at some levels.

KG: That's amazing. Now, some of those sports-like comparisons go away during the college tournament. The college kids probably aren't giving up every Saturday night to train with a coach, for example. On the other hand, there's quite a lot of school spirit. Right?

CM: Yeah, there absolutely is. And I think that's especially true this year. So, the way the college tournament works is: they bring in 15 students from 15 different schools. And, you know, there are always some Ivy League institutions in the mix, and that's the case this year as well. You've got your Princeton and your Yale.

But this year, there are also a ton of schools that have well-known sporting programs, which is really fun. And it seems like producers are trying to make this as sporty as they can. This week saw students from the University of Florida and Florida State face off against a Yale student from Miami.

I mean, it's a pretty unique tournament for "Jeopardy!" because producers really want you to choose a player and cheer them on. And maybe that's a student who happens to come from your school or maybe that's whoever's playing your school's rival. You know, it's just like sports.

KG: Well, so, an example that's just like sports: I'd like to take you to a moment that happened this week:

Sirad is from Princeton, but another one of the contestants, Marshall, is wearing a University of Texas sweatshirt.

CM: Exactly. And I think — I'm sure that he was really hoping he would win that buzzer battle and missed out.

KG: Can we talk for just a minute about the sweatshirts? Because I've always kind of wondered: Why not T-shirts? Is it cold in that studio?

CM: It's really cold in that studio, actually. Out of concern for all the lights and everything — 'cause there's just so much happening on a TV stage — they keep it at, like, a crypt-like chill. So, honestly, like, I think the hoodies are a great move. I feel terrible for contestants on normal "Jeopardy!" who are just in, like, a short-sleeve shirt because they're told to dress for whatever season their episode will be airing in, which is not always the same season that they're taping. So, you know, pro-hoodie.

KG: All right. All right. So, like March Madness, there are Cinderella stories. And I understand that this year's Cinderella story is Ole Miss.

CM: Yeah, absolutely. So one of the highlights of this tournament came on Wednesday when Londyn Lorenz, who is a sophomore at Ole Miss — she won pretty authoritatively. And what's really remarkable about her victory is that she did it without finding any of the Daily Doubles or betting big in Final Jeopardy!, and that's the way usually you kind of catapult yourself forward on "Jeopardy!"

So it was really just a very impressive game. And adding to that, this is Ole Miss's very first time in the tournament — it's been going on for 30 years. This is Ole Miss's first appearance. So it's very exciting to see them advance.

KG: I want to take just a second, though, to acknowledge her chat with Alex, because in the history of contestants saying unexpected things to Alex Trebek, I think maybe this ranks right up there:

Alex Trebek: Your majors are Arabic and international studies, right? With a view to doing what?

Londyn Lorenz: Well, you know, I could marry a rich sheik in the Middle East and make a lot of money. That'd be fun.

CM: I mean, there have been worse plans probably. But I mean, part of the fun of this tournament in particular is: You are seeing these college kids. I mean, she's just a sophomore, right? So it's just so fun to see, I mean, literal teenagers in a lot of cases just kind of have some fun.

KG: So the clues can also be a bit more fun. Take this one from the 2018 tournament.

CM: So, the clues in the college tournament often have something of an educational theme — not in that specific clue. But they're often a little easier than normal "Jeopardy!," and they're often more fun. There's usually a lot more pop culture in the college tournament. A lot of it is pretty recent stuff. And the writers love to do things like have Alex Trebek read funny lyrics, rap lyrics, and he has said that he kind of makes a point of actually not going to listen to those songs, so he can kind of deliver his own authentic interpretation of lyrics like that one.

KG: Yeah, because his interpretation is not at all like the real thing.

CM: No, which is probably for the best.

KG: The contestants have a lot of fun with this tournament, too. Here's a clip from 2017.

I don't want to say that these moments don't happen on the regular show. But there does seem to be something a little looser or a little more fun about the college tournament, right?

CM: There absolutely is. And that's what makes it so special. I mean, in addition to "Jeopardy!" kind of encouraging you to root along, like, it is just authentically really fun. And they're obviously really, really bright students. But it's just great to kind of watch them have a sense of humor about it. And Lilly Chin has actually said that in the years since her tournament, she's still approached by people about the "spiciest meme lord." People will see her on the street and just shout "spiciest meme lord!" at her.

KG: OK, so there's one more week of the tournament still to come. Make your best argument for why it should be the sport we all tune into next week.

CM: Well, first of all, there's not a lot of competition going on right now on the sporting front. But it is a really serious competition, and it's a new competition, you know? You turn on ESPN, and ... you're watching old World Series games or old NBA Finals games. But here, we don't really know what'll happen, even though it did tape a couple of months ago. And it's just really fun to watch people who are really good at something do that thing. And I think everybody should tune in next week.

Claire McNear is a staff writer for The Ringer. Her forthcoming book, "Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider's Guide to Jeopardy!" is coming out in November.

This segment aired on April 11, 2020.


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Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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