This is the third and final installment of a trilogy where I shift the focus from my own personal fate of not being able to attend MLS Cup 2020 to my own personal happiness for some of the people who were able to be there. While I was happy for every single person who could attend, I settled on three stories to tell. First up was Savannah Bee, who got a make-up for the MLS Cup 2015 heartbreaker that temporarily upended her world. Next was my friend Andy Zartman, who did not travel to MLS Cup 2008 because he wanted to be home with his wife and newborn son, and then was so excited for the 2020 playoff run that he financed ridiculous hype videos by the Buttercream Dream. To finish off the series, here’s the tale of my hardworking friend Katie Witham.
On Sunday March 8, 2020, Katie Witham worked the sideline for the national FS1 broadcast from Banc of California Stadium in downtown Los Angeles. If you can remember back several lifetimes ago, it was an insanely exciting 3-3 draw between Los Angeles FC and the visiting Philadelphia Union.
Within the week, the world stopped. Consequently, as with so many Americans, Katie found that her job stopped too.
One of my many joys in soccer has been witnessing the upward trajectory of Katie’s career. I’ve known her before she even did her first internship with the Columbus Crew. Before she started doing sideline reports for the Crew’s local radio and television broadcasts. Before she moved on to be the sideline reporter for Cleveland Indians broadcasts. Before she jumped to the national stage with FOX Sports, ESPN, and then back to FOX. Before she inspirationally decided she could simultaneously have a baby and excel as an on-camera reporter during her pregnancy, no matter what the pressure of conventional expectations may be.
Working Crew games with Katie in the early days of her career was like having a hilarious kid sister. Our pregame tunnel talks and field walks were always a fun mixture insightful soccer conversations, inside jokes, and good humor. Katie is fond of sharing and laughing about her blonde moments. There is no pretense about her.
To give you a taste of our ridiculous conversations, once, while on the road, Katie and I met for breakfast at the hotel’s restaurant. Within view of our table was an amorous couple who sat on the same side of their booth and started kissing while getting uncomfortably handsy with each other. Katie and I immediately pondered the ideal wording if one were to admonish them. The old standby—“Get a room!”—wouldn’t work as one or both of them presumably already had a room if they were eating breakfast together at the hotel. They wouldn’t need to book another. We thought about “Go to your room!” But that would make us sound like angry parents doling out punishment, and by all appearances, those two going to their room would not be classified as punishment. We ultimately decided that “Use your room!” would be the best comment to make if one were so inclined. Alas, by the time we worked through the logic and reached our consensus, their food arrived and they had commenced satisfying more publicly appropriate appetites. It was a fun conversation though, as they always are with Katie.
To this day, Katie remains the same smart, personable, quick-witted, unintimidated, thoroughly prepared, and self-deprecating person I first met. All her success hasn’t changed a thing, so I hated it when Katie was out of work due to the pandemic.
“FOX was very upfront and honest with me,” she says. They told her once MLS play resumed, John Strong and Stu Holden would be calling games off monitors. There would be no in-stadium sideline reporters until possibly the playoffs. It made a for a disorienting summer.
“I’ve had times in my life where I have been unable to work for a certain reason or another,” she says, “but it’s never lasted nine months. For me, being one of the millions of Americans that were out of work during this time, we are fortunate that my husband has been able to work from home so we can survive. I wanted to be out there so badly and to work in some capacity, but I understood why there wasn’t really an option to have me back out there yet. Still, I missed the hell out of being a part of it.”
All of the elements came together for Katie on December 6, 2020. The Columbus Crew defeated the New England Revolution, 1-0, earning them the right to host MLS Cup in her hometown. The game would be televised by FOX, creating a harmonic convergence of game location and TV rights. Without the need for any risky travel, it made perfect sense for FOX to utilize her talents in the broadcast.
“It was the best early Christmas present I could get,” she says. “I was able to get back out there and be part of the game. The fact that it was in my own backyard made it easy and so much fun for me. But I was nervous. Was I going to be rusty?”
Many colleagues, including former Crew defender and current Real Salt Lake broadcaster Brian Dunseth, proactively reached out to her to congratulate her and to assure her that going back on TV would be just like riding a bike. Katie being Katie, she would respond to such sentiments with GIFs of people crashing or falling off bicycles.
Katie knew the job she would be doing for MLS Cup would not be the job she has excelled at for years. She would not be working the space between the benches, viewing the game from field level, speaking with coaches, and eavesdropping on all the chatter inaccessible to fans in the stadium or viewing on TV. So much of her job is being the eyes and ears of the audience from her unique vantage point, and that was not going to be possible at MLS Cup due to pandemic protocols.
“I’d been watching the NFL and college football pretty closely,” Katie says. “More the NFL because I knew if I got an opportunity, I was not going to be on the sideline, but in the stands. I’m a huge fan of Michele Tafoya. I think she is the best at what she does, and so I was watching her kind of being relegated to doing these pre-prepared, evergreen storylines that could be worked in. So that was my gameplan going into it. I knew I was going to be severely limited.”
During a normal season, Katie watches as many MLS matches as possible. She uses her time on the road in hotels and airports to voraciously consume soccer articles and podcasts. She has the benefit of in-person pre-production meetings with each of the teams. In 2020, while at home with her young son, she had been following the league, but without the all-consuming effort to prepare for a national television broadcast each week. Suddenly, she had to go into overdrive for MLS Cup.
“I really had to ramp it up because I wasn’t completely engrossed in it,” she says. “It was the same type of prep, but it was just way more extensive.”
In-person pre-production meetings were replaced by Zoom calls, which don’t offer the same intimacy or the ability to read body language. To dig a little deeper and get a better feel for the match and the storylines, Katie did additional one-on-one telephone interviews with players and coaches.
“I just wanted to have different angles and to feel as prepared as possible,” she says.
In the week leading up to the game, Katie chatted with FOX Minnesota about the match-up. By that time, the news had broken about the absences of Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos, presumably making Seattle heavy favorites. She told FOX Minnesota that in sports, you never know until the players step on the field and play.
In production meetings for the game broadcast, on the topic of pregame panel predictions, it was all Seattle across the board. Katie wouldn’t let it slide.
“I said, ‘Somebody better pick Columbus just for me because I’m not allowed to pick anybody. One of you has to pick Columbus!’ But nobody did.”
While Katie had to rely on her Tafoya-esque research and game-week interviews for her reporting content since she couldn’t be down on the field, she lucked into an eyes-and-ears moment. Sitting alone in the stands near the tunnel, she was in perfect position when the Crew scored their second goal and the celebration carried into that corner. Although regrettably unable to work what she observed into the flow of the fast-paced broadcast, Crew fans will surely love reading about it now.
“After the second goal, the celebration happened at the corner flag right in front of my position in the stands,” she says. “I could hear plain as day, and I mean, these guys are all going nuts, but I could hear plain as day Aidan Morris screaming at the guys and being a true leader. I looked down at my notes, like, how old is this kid again? He was so confident. He was yelling at the guys, ‘We’re not done yet! Let’s go! Let’s get back out there! We’re getting another one!’ It just conveyed so much about this young kid that we’re just getting to know, not only in Columbus, but on a national level. It conveyed what the Crew were feeling in that moment. Even up 2-0, they were not done.”
Back in 2008, Katie and I had a running joke about how her hairstyle dictated the Crew’s performance. Early in the season, she noticed that when she wore her hair curled, the Crew would win. When it was straight, the Crew would drop points. The moment I would see her in the tunnel, she would greet me by pointing to her head and exclaiming, “I’ve got the curls!” Hours later, we would celebrate another Crew victory.
In February of this year, Katie served as the model for the Crew’s new black jersey, the same jerseys worn in MLS Cup 2020. It appears she once again brought good luck to the Black & Gold, this time with her jersey modeling exploits.
“I totally brought that up,” she says with a laugh.
When the MLS Is Back Tournament started in Orlando, FOX play-by-play announcer John Strong told Katie he would work her name into every broadcast. All he needed was a stat to reference. She said, “I don’t know John, but the only thing I can think of is that the Crew are undefeated ever since I modeled their jersey. Maybe I’m the reason they’re doing so well.” Strong actually used the stat in a broadcast.
After MLS Cup, Katie mentioned it to Strong again, this time claiming credit for the Crew’s MLS Cup championship.
“John just rolled his eyes and walked away,” she says. “It was like, ‘Really?’”
Although the visual effect was ultimately diminished due to that day’s rain and cold, Katie brought more than just her jersey modeling juju to MAPFRE Stadium on the night of MLS Cup 2020.
Before she left home, she curled her hair.
MLS Cup was joyous for so many reasons. For me, one of them is that Katie Witham went back on the air after nine months of pandemic-related career curtailment. Not only that, but to do so in her city, in the stadium where her career began, and to see the club that first gave her an opportunity win MLS Cup at home in Central Ohio.
“You know I’m unbiased in my job because I’m working the national broadcast for both teams and I have such a great relationship with Brian Schmetzer and the Sounders,” she says, “but I won’t lie. There was definitely some sentimentality. There was some Sentimental Katie that went into this one. And it was just so wonderful to get back out there.”
Getting to once again do what she loves at the highest level in the place where it all began, I’m so happy Katie Witham was there.
My latest book “A Massive Collection, Volume 1” is now available!
Also, for those who like to support local businesses, signed paperback copies are available at Prologue Bookshop in the Short North.