Seated on a wrought iron bench, nestled underneath a handful of shadow-casting trees just north of the larger-than-life-sized statue of the late, great Bob Feller, Katie Witham reaches down to retrieve her vibrating iPhone. “No Manny,” she says, speaking of the Cleveland Indians skipper who was to address the media later that morning. Following a blown save-turned-loss at the hands of the visiting Seattle Mariners, and playing host to that very team twice that day, Acta opted to take this opportunity to focus on the task at hand.
Instead, the Tribe will be sending out trainer Lonnie Soloff who would provide the latest information on a recently injured designated hitter in Travis Hafner, the latest of a litany of battered baseball players who happen to call Cleveland home during the summer months. Soloff’s State of the Injured Union would kick off what was set to be a marathon day for a sideline reporter – a day-night doubleheader with the first pitch being tossed a mere 13 hours after the last one was caught one night earlier. For Witham, it’s merely another day as a freelance sideline reporter who remains on call for the majority of her waking moments. On this one, however, she would have extra duties as her employer, SportsTime Ohio (STO), would have to bridge the gap between two games as their team of choice coverage careens into the autumn months playing meaningful baseball – their first such opportunity since the 2007 playoff run that saw the team fall a game shy of the World Series.
Combating the commencement of Browns training camp, a barrage of battered and bruised players and a rather pedestrian record since the All-Star break, the Indians are grasping for postseason life as they’ve slowly seen their “games behind” column increase. But there’s Witham, gleaming with optimism, supported by a smile, asking rhetorically, “You have to be optimistic, right?”
Witham, 27, had arrived to Progressive Field considerably earlier than a normal night on the job. Cleveland weather played an integral part, forcing a previously rained-out contest to be added to what would be 45 games in the closing 44 days of the team’s regular season schedule. Walking along Rally Alley, the cavernous stretch of street set between the back side of Progressive Field’s jumbotron and an adjacent parking garage that is reserved for pre-game foot traffic, the freelance reporter embraces her black shoulder bag which is full of requisite personalia for the coming hours.
Topping off the various notebooks and instruments to aid in the pending reportage is a pair of sandals. A cherry on top of the plain vanilla sundae, these two lightweight pieces of footwear signal the light at the end of what would be a very long, 18-inning tunnel. This Midwestern girl understands the need to dress the part for her on-camera role, but once the camera lights go off, so do the black high heels that accompany the choice ensemble for the evening: the go-to black dress that many within her demographic turn to on nights like this one.
Hailing from Alliance, Ohio, hometown of Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson, Witham spends her days split between Columbus and Cleveland. In the former, she performs double duty; a sideline reporter for the Columbus Crew, one of the 10 charter clubs within Major League Soccer, a season which runs from March to October; an in-studio correspondent for the Big Ten Network during the fall and winter months, aiding in their cavalcade of NCAA coverage. As if the hours spent between these two employers were insufficient, the affable up-and-comer moonlights as a color commentator for FOXSports South’s SEC Soccer coverage.
Topping it all off, Witham revisits Interstate 71 with the frequency of an ODOT employee, heading north to Cleveland where she provides additional commentary for televised Indians contests mixed with the occasional promotional effort; STO uses many an in-game break to educate those at home about any ticket-related deals or upcoming giveaways. Dollar dogs, fireworks, Human Rain Delay bobbleheads…
But how, exactly, does someone stumble into four independent freelance positions?
“It just kind of happened,” Witham explains. A communications major who graduated from Capital University, the then-22-year old had a trial run as a news anchor for WBNS-10TV in Columbus, one that started with an internship but did not exactly live up to expectations. Using relationships she had cultivated within the industry, Witham opted to take on the challenge of being a female in the male-dominated universe of sports, one that was all to familiar to her due to an adolescence surrounded by those who traded in running and hitting and throwing and kicking.
While most 20-something sideline reporters would not classify themselves as tomboys, Witham embraces the term. With a sports fan father, an observant older brother and a neighborhood rife with the male species, Witham spurned the typical teenage summer in order to man (or woman) the outfield for her local high-level softball team where should would amass such accolades as team captain and First Team All-Federal League – the Ohio High School Athletic Association sports conference which Alliance would leave in 2003 to join the Northeastern Buckeye Conference.
Despite leading the Aviators to many wins and earning Division-I scholarship offers from Wright State University and Kent State University, it was a different game – The Beautiful Game – for which Witham’s affinity was infinity.
Growing up in the days of Mia Hamm magazine covers and Brandi Chastain’s legendary post-goal celebration, it is easy to see how a girl like Witham could transition so well to a game in which she had no experience entering high school. Passing up the two softball-related offers, Witham chose to head to Columbus where she would continue to play soccer, taking her talents to the nation’s capital. A defender, Witham would become the Capital Crusaders’ team captain and First Team All-League in 2005; little did she know, while leaving the cleats behind, Witham would find herself around soccer for the bulk of her budding career.
“I know that I live in the wrong country, but I’m a soccer girl,” Witham says, speaking of the potential opportunities she has passed up due to her love for the game. Nominated for an Emmy Award in 2008 and winning a Telly Award in 2009, it is increasingly evident that Witham’s passion for soccer coupled with sports-related background has provided a solid foundation for her work as an in-game reporter.
Her peers marvel at her work and appreciate her as a person. They exchange ideas and share criticisms. They speak of the benefit and inherent fortune of having a reporter like Witham providing intelligence about a game on the rise with regard to domestic viewership.
“Like many former athletes that are now reporters, Katie has a deep understanding of the game,” says Ashleigh Ignelzi, freelance reporter for ESPN The Magazine and sideline reporter for the Columbus Crew. “She has the ability to put herself in the players’ situations; she knows what it feels like to be down a goal at the half of face a fierce offensive attack.”
Having talked with international stars like David Beckham (“a great interview once you get past the voice”) and possessing the ability to flawlessly pronounce the name of French footballer Thierry Henry, Witham knows that the life of a freelance reporter can be somewhat asymmetrical when it comes to rewards – not having a contract does not guarantee that today’s opportunities will be available come tomorrow.
While the casual outsider will opt to group Witham in with other female reporters of similar visual appeal, Witham admires those that are more of the on-air journalists, those getting the stories in their various arenas, be they sport or not sport. Akin to a child who watches the sports which she covers would have a poster of their respective heroes, Witham’s bedroom wall would pay homage to Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer more than Erin Andrews and Charissa Thompson, Lisa Salters rather than Inés Sainz, And all of this is not to confuse preference for disrespect as Witham has had the opportunity to meet and chat with all of the former, save for Sainz, describing Andrews as “very nice” and has shared the same set as Thompson.
Assuming that professional soccer and baseball were not enough in terms of testosterone-fueled environments, Witham’s favorite interview to date is Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California and the namesake behind the Arnold Classic; a multi-day multi-sport event that focues primarily on bodybuilding and mixed martial arts. While she admits that her youth and appearance may have led to her getting to the front of the pack, Witham states that the athlete turned movie start turned politician could not have been nicer. Her cover-of-the-book assessment? “God, he”s short,” Witham states.
A fan of MMA as well as World Wrestling Entertainment, Witham has also had the opportunity to interview entertainer John Cena who she describes as “a teddy bear.” And not to be derailed by the perception of his misogynistic ways, Witham is a very big fan of radio personality Howard Stern who is widely known as one of the best interviewers in show business at present day.
To her credit, Witham is not naive about the perceptions that remain. Blonde, bubbly and perpetually high-spirited, the “just another pretty face” stereotype surrounding her entire peer group is one that is constantly faced. With this being her first full season with the Cleveland Indians, Witham speaks of a little fun-felt hazing – players going “all out” within locker rooms with the goal being an added level of discomfort – but is quick to let it be known that she can hold her own within such an environment. “I have tough skin,” she states, speaking of the first few games where she could have caved under the pressure of being fresh meat. Of the few stories that actually get reported regarding players and off-color commentary, one can only envision the uphill battle faced when attempting to gain respect amongst those whom are being covered.
Instead, Witham has kept her professionalism as a primary goal, always conscious of her appearance, never dressed inappropriately. Earlier in the Indians’ season, two men who had been seated near Witham during one of her promotional spots decided to give Witham a taste of guerilla warfare by kissing on live television. While the Internet went ablaze following the incident, the reporter had no knowledge of the goings on until the following day; once the camera is turned on, the blinders that have been molded over the years allow her to remain focused and relatively uninterrupted by her surroundings.
When asked about the unfortunate and infamous incident regarding Andrews and a “fan” who went way over the line of appreciation, obvious discomfort graced Witham’s face. “How could it not freak you out?” she asks. Always willing to engage with players and fans alike, Witham takes to Twitter on a nightly basis, providing additional commentary or replying back to the occasional flirtatious – and sometimes creepy – compliments she receives. It all harkens back to the psyche of a Midwestern girl who opts to trust everyone and chooses to be flattered rather than repulsed.
These values were instilled by her close-knit family, spearheaded by her parents, aided along by her older brother and passed down to her younger sister. Though she is self-conscious about her “big cheeks” and feels that she still needs to add another level of confidence to her reporting, Witham knows that the only way to increase comfort level is through repetitions, akin to those who she covers on a daily basis.
But once her night is complete, Witham meanders back to her car where she turns on her satellite radio and catches all of the late-breaking news and gets up to date on the most recent scores. She cracks open her glove compartment and removes a few make-up wipes from their plastic container.
On her days off – despite how few and far between they actually are – Witham can be found curled up on her couch with her dog Lucy, a boxer-pit bull mix, donning the latest in jeans and hooded sweatshirt fashion, sipping a Stella Artois; always out of the bottle – why clean another glass if you don’t have to? Avoiding the glitz and glam of a bigger city, Witham has the luxury of scheduling all of her work on her own as she feels that having a manager or agent is completely redundant. And while she has the occasional daydream of what it would be like to have what she deems a “real job,” Witham continues to live her dream of getting paid to watch professional sports.
When asked if her run of covering the Indians has provided the opportunity for her to throw out the first pitch in a game, Witham’s faced turned as if it were an emoticon complete with a backslash as her days of getting to throw a baseball appear to be in the rear view mirror. But after pondering the idea and facing the question of if she would harness her inner Jenny Finch and whip said pitch underhand or if she would rock a deliberate wind up and fire in a four-seam fastball, the typical Witham returned with a smile.
“Heck yeah, I would throw it overhand,” she exclaims. “And I’d throw it off the mound.”