April 24, 2014

Katie Witham and the Life of a Female Freelance Reporter

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.”

  • jimkanicki

    KATIE IS THE BEST!!!

    i could go on and on on this subject. i really appreciate the WORK she does. you think it’s easy getting pumped up to do another Family Fun Day/Rally Alley promo? but she does it.. complete professional.

    when she is given a chance to deliver analysis, it’s spot on and relevant. (eg, she asked some coach the question i had about why zeke was so deep on those flyballs that dropped in front him a couple nights ago. did ocker ask that question? did hoysie report that important bit of data? no. KATIE did.)

    we all know the sideline barbie deal. here in boston heidi watney is the flavor this year. sure she’s pretty but she sits with the camera man on the field along the 3rd base line all game. katie gets out there with the people. she also never forgets that kids love to be on TV and always gives them a chance to get their mugs on the air.

    last. accessible. she’ll reply to tweets. mine at least. i’m sure there are limits. but you dont get the sense a ‘media elite’ from her in any way.

    i’ve seen a lot of people try to do this role. it’s not as easy as katie makes it look. i think she’s tops.

  • jimkanicki

    forgot my closing thought — i think she’d be great at play-by-play. i mean, knock it out of the park great.

  • NJ

    Stella Artois? Why bother?

  • Eli

    Don’t have much of a chance to catch local programming from here so I’ve never seen her. But, nonetheless, this was an interesting personal story. Thanks Scott.

  • Andrew Koestel

    Great story. I love Katie Witham and her work.

  • Chucky Brown

    I like her more now that I have read this story

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Craig Lyndall

    I like Katie’s work too. The fact that she came out of the Indians music festival thing with people still on her side says a lot. That was the early part of the season version of the AT&T flash mob commercial that people are so up in arms about.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com @WFNYTD

    GREAT job Scott.

  • Ghost To Most

    Doesnt anybody have her WAR or UZR from her softball days? We could use another outfielder.

  • Carol

    Thanks for the post, very interesting & informative, great job Scott.

  • Shamrock

    The blonde on channel 8 has great ability too! Hope Underwood gets replaced you know Archie wouldn’t mind!

  • Harv 21

    Holy crap, that’s like twice as many words as a team’s year-end recap. Calling people for quotes for an exclusive (exclusive!) with a 27 year-old sideline reporter? She must gravitas dripping out her ears, baby, a serious journalist. OK you crazy kids, now switch seats, Katie interviews Scott.

    (hey Jodie Valade, that you?)

  • false~cognate

    Cool puff piefce, bro

  • Shamrock

    lol @ Harv it was a tad long.

  • http://www.chrismetcalf.org Chris Metcalf

    Great article. Big Katie fan here.

    Cool to know that she likes WWE. Like Chucky Brown said above, I like Katie even more now that I’ve read this story.

  • B-bo

    I will say that she seems like a nice enough person based on this, and good for her to be doing something she enjoys, but her appearances are and will remain the signal for me to change the channel or take a bathroom break. She (much like every other in-stadium or sideline “reporter” out there, in any sport) just doesn’t bring any significant value to a broadcast, in my opinion (though the same can be said about Underwood in the Tribe’s case). And I’ve never found her to be particularly “charming” or whatever else that might keep my attention in spite of that. Still, my issue isn’t necessarily with her, but with the role she fills. I just want to watch a game, not a sales pitch or a fluff piece or some mundane tidbit masquerading as “insider info”.

    The good news for her is that if she ever needs an agent, I believe Mr. Kanicki is available and willing.

  • james

    EXCLUSIVE!!

  • Slick Rick

    Was this a ploy to get a date? Is the exclusivity because nobody else cares who she is?

  • 216in614

    I do find her voice and presentation a little grating. And I do consider her more of an Indians PR girl as opposed to an actual journalist.

  • DK

    “Was this a ploy to get a date? Is the exclusivity because nobody else cares who she is?”

    Completely 150% agree. seems to be way overwritten for an interview with someone who gets 30 seconds tops of airtime. who cares.

  • Pale Dragon

    Good article. I have been curious to know more about her after seeing her all year on the STO broadcasts.

    She is very attractive and has a great on air personality, but it is also clear that she is trying hard to be a serious reporter. I feel bad that she has to spend so much time doing those plugs for upcoming Indians promotions. I would prefer to have her do more actual reporting.

  • NJ

    Man, I thought I was critical. You do one puff piece about somebody associated with Cleveland sports and the rabble breaks out the pitchforks.

    I feel bad for competent female reporters, even outside sports. 99% of the on-air people in televised media are pretty, yet you rarely hear a serious male reporter get dismissed as just eye-candy.

    If she broke why EzeqCar was playing two feet from then she’s okay with me.

  • mgbode

    Tom Brokaw owned the female 50-90yo demographic.

    (it would have been easier to just say I agreed with you, but not quite as funny)

  • asian.

    She probably does very well financially even though she is freelance. I figure TV reporters do well and she can afford an iPhone and a pet.

  • asian.

    it is nice getting profiles on people not normally interviewed. She was smart to chose broadcast vs. print–she will make more $$ doing what she’s doing (4 freelance) than if she had gone the MKC route and did print.

  • asian.

    she seems pretty good, even sans eye candy bit. However, when WFNY says relationships you do probably realize her beauty opened up doors that most normal people would not get EVEN IF they worked hard and networked too..

  • asian.

    I agree. She is where she is at due to relationships, which she got in part due to her physical beauty. Ironically, it can be seen as a detriment as well, so she has to work even harder than most..but at the same time, she wouldn’t be as far as she is if she was not pretty.