Sportscaster Lindsay Czarniak's career trajectory is only headed up

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010; C01

Lindsay Czarniak learned a great many things about sportscasting from her mentor, George Michael. One of the biggest was: Make it look like fun.

So here is Czarniak at the end of a 14-hour workday, delivering the sports news on Channel 4's 11 p.m. broadcast. She's been on the go since early morning, starting with a news conference at Redskins Park in Ashburn to introduce Donovan McNabb, the team's new quarterback. Czarniak went "live" from the presser, then co-hosted a special report on it at midday. She's led the 4, 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts with the story, in addition to doing her regular sports segments.

Now she's on her last broadcast of the day, the bell lap, and she's not fading. "Donovan McNabb was really leading by example," she reports brightly, after anchor Jim Vance tosses to her. "He was at Redskins Park working out at 7:30 this morning!" Under a new coach, she says, McNabb hopes to become "John Elway Number 2 in a burgundy and gold jersey."

Connect with the audience, Michael told her. Don't just read the prompter. Know it. Say it. Believe it.

Czarniak sets up clips of the Capitals-Penguins hockey game: "The Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby rivalry never really gets stale, ever!" And remember, it's just sports, not war and peace. Sell it, kid, he said.

The godawful Wizards win one against the godawfuller Golden State Warriors, the second in a two-game winning streak -- "a mini one! It's a mini one!" laughs Czarniak, as footage of the game rolls. "Pretty impressive!"

Michael didn't just hire Czarniak five years ago and school her in the Ways of George; he essentially bequeathed her his throne. When Michael quit News4 in a huff in 2007, grumbling about personnel cuts and WRC's shrinking commitment to sports, he was still the most popular sportscaster in town, lord of all the teams he surveyed nightly. He handed the job to Czarniak and another of his telegenic proteges, Dan Hellie, making them the most visible sportscasters on the most-watched news station in town.

In other words, he set Czarniak -- pretty, blond, perpetually sunny -- on her present trajectory, which seems to be stratospheric.

The girl next door

It's hard to have a conversation about Czarniak with anyone involved in local sports without the talk eventually turning to where she's headed next. Her contract expires next spring, and it's almost an article of faith that Washington and Channel 4 are too small to contain her. She's already done network-level work (for Channel 4's owner, NBC, and for TNT, for whom she'll host a weekly NASCAR program this summer). The expectation is that Czarniak will soon be outta here, perhaps to follow the path of ESPN's Erin Andrews, another camera-friendly golden girl.

"I think her career arc is unlimited," says Ted Leonsis, owner of the Capitals and part-owner of the Wizards and Verizon Center. "She's got so much upside. . . . I could see NBC saying, 'We're going to recommit to sports and we'll have a bigger show and a bigger setting for her.' She's young, she's articulate and she's passionate, and that just comes across."

Czarniak, 32, is grateful to Michael, who succumbed to cancer in December, and acknowledges her debt. "He kicked my butt," she says one morning at a favorite coffee shop near her home in Dupont Circle. His not infrequent late-night phone calls critiquing something she had done (or not done) were bearable because "I came out smarter on the other side. I think he really sharpened me. I really got him and I think he got me. I really valued his high standards, and I learned from them."

But in the next breath, she declares her independence: "Everyone has their own style. Everyone does things their own way. I know I do."

Czarniak has none of Michael's brashness, his slap-on-the-back locker-room boisterousness. She's enthusiastic, all right, but it mostly comes across as breezy. Unlike many of her TV sports brethren, she rarely criticizes or offers sharp opinions, preferring to stay upbeat ("It's a mini one!") even when a team is plainly terrible. She's the friendly girl next door, if the girl next door could talk about NFL draft picks and looked like Britney Spears's more dignified older sister.

Owing to her diminished but still powerful perch on Channel 4 and her dogged efforts to build relationships with players and coaches, Czarniak has become a solid source of scoops, too. In January, for example, she broke the story of Jim Zorn's firing as Redskins coach, tweeting the news at 4:45 a.m. (for the record, Czarniak has worked as a sideline reporter on Redskins-produced preseason games, which means, in effect, that she has been a temporary employee of the team she was covering).

A dream job

It was Michael's son-in-law who first spotted Czarniak in 2004 on a NASCAR broadcast on cable (she was a part-time pit-crew reporter). She was 26 at the time, four years out of James Madison University and eight years removed from Centreville High School in Fairfax County. Her full-time gig was as a junior sports anchor with the NBC affiliate in Miami. By then, she'd been on TV for all of three years.

" 'We want to get you here,' " she said he told her. " 'We want to make you a star.' "

Michael offered her a spot on his "team" of anchors, producers and reporters, then numbering 20, now fewer than half that. It was a dream job: Czarniak would be on the No. 1 station in a big market. As a bonus, she'd be back in her home town, enabling her parents, Chet and Terri, and younger brother Andrew to see her on TV every night.

She promptly turned him down.

"I guess I was nervous about making the jump," she admits in retrospect. "Miami was great. [Michael's offer] was a bit of a shock to me."

Michael, not one to beg, wished her well and wrote her off. But Chet Czarniak, a longtime sportswriter and editor at USA Today in McLean, knew his daughter was making a mistake. He suggested, gently, that she reconsider.

A month later, Czarniak called to ask Michael if the job was still open. He would later call her "the best hire I've ever made."

Michael's tutoring is evident not just in Czarniak's cheerful style but in other elements of her on-air presentation. Michael's signature phrase -- "Let me take you out to [name of city or venue] . . . " -- creeps into Czarniak's and Hellie's scripts. Chet Czarniak says he can see Michael's influence even in his daughter's body language. "She'll get excited about telling a story and she'll lean on the desk with her elbows out and she'll be pointing," he says. "And I'll think, that's exactly like George."

Despite her father's professional background, Czarniak says she didn't grow up cramming batting averages and points-per-game stats into her head. Sports certainly interested her -- she played youth soccer, lacrosse and field hockey in high school -- but so did other activities, such as acting. "Watching my dad and hearing his stories was part of growing up," Czarniak says. Sports "always interested me, but I never had a die-hard drive to do that."

At Centreville High, she was class president and homecoming queen. "She always had that leadership thing from the time she was very young," says Terri Czarniak, an elementary school principal in Fairfax. "She was always comfortable in those roles."

But Chet Czarniak's job drew her closer to sports. The elder Czarniak remembers taking his young daughter to a racetrack and lifting her up to pet Sunny's Halo, winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1983. Both father and daughter recall family outings to Memorial Stadium to watch the Orioles. A treasured family heirloom is the football Chet brought home from a Super Bowl one year, autographed by Doug Williams, the Redskins quarterback.

These days, both of the elder Czarniaks watch their daughter with pride and a critical eye. Terri records or watches her sportscasts every night, and offers praise and pointers. Between broadcasts last week, Lindsay picked up text messages from her mother congratulating her on an earlier interview while also suggesting that she run a comb through her hair before the next time she appeared on camera.

In a man's world

Czarniak says being a woman in a testosterone-saturated environment like sports cuts both ways. "There are times when it could make a difference," she allows. "Do [male] athletes feel more comfortable talking to a guy? I don't know. But I've never had an athlete refuse to talk to me because I'm a woman." She reasons, "Maybe I bring a little different perspective [than a man]. . . . Maybe there's a different line of questioning. You could say it might hurt, but sometimes maybe it helps, too."

Czarniak has never experienced the sort of horrors that have befallen Erin Andrews, one of ESPN's principal sideline reporters. Last year, Andrews was surreptitiously videotaped in her hotel room by a Chicago area man who had been stalking her (the man was convicted in March of interstate stalking and sentenced to 30 months in federal prison). The FBI confirmed last week that it has been investigating another man for allegedly making death threats against Andrews.

The worst it has gotten for Czarniak is the constant refrain she endures when she walks to the sidelines at a Redskins home game before heading to the locker room for postgame interviews. "Lindsay!" the calls begin from the stands, typically from inebriated young men. "Hey, Lindsay! What's up, girl? Love you! Lindsay Lindsay Lindsay Lindsaaaay!" Czarniak says she ignores the chatter; she offers no complaints.

Andrews's ordeal notwithstanding, such hazing may be among the last remaining sexist hazards for female sportscasters and writers. Chet Czarniak remembers when it was different; when the first generation of women was coming up in the sports media in the early 1980s, he says, they endured not just sexism but outright hostility from athletes, teams and fans.

But times have changed. Sports organizations are more accommodating to female reporters. Besides, Czarniak isn't the only woman in the interview scrum after games these days. As it happens, local TV sports has its own blond ghetto, with reporter-anchors such as Jill Sorenson, Kelli Johnson and Lisa Hillary of Comcast SportsNet, Lindsay Murphy of Channel 5, and Sara Walsh of Channel 9 (who is soon to join ESPN).

George Michael had something to do with this, too. In 2000, he hired Sorenson, then 23, as WRC's first female sports anchor. "I think he saw a trend going across the nation," Sorenson says. "He understood the value of having a woman in that position. Let's face it, guys watch sports and guys like to watch a woman. But the local news also attracts a lot of casual fans, and a lot of people who aren't really fans at all. I think a lot of the time having a woman in that job is more welcoming to people. People like your grandmother aren't big sports fans, [but] they can relate to a woman doing sports."

Sorenson left Channel 4 in 2004 to take a news-reporting job at Channel 5, then jumped back to sports with Comcast after giving birth to her first child. Despite her defection from News4, Michael asked her to vet Czarniak before he hired her. "I told him I thought she was great," Sorenson says.

Czarniak, who is single (she is dating WRC news anchor Craig Melvin), is generally cautious about talking about what the future might hold.

For now she's perfectly happy working 50 weeks a year for News 4. Czarniak's work space is a simple desk, no office, and unadorned except for a few personal snapshots of friends and family. A series of bobble-heads -- of Caps stars Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green and the Wizards' DeShawn Stevenson -- tremble by her desk as she bats away at a computer.

A bobble-head of Czarniak herself, courtesy of the Bowie Bay Sox baseball team, sits in a cardboard box by the window.

"I have the perfect job," she says. "I love it here. If it continues this way, I could do it forever. It would be awesome and amazing."

At a turning point

One possible clue to Czarniak's career ambitions is the sports interview segment she hosts called "Lunch With Lindsay." Each week, Czarniak sits down over lunch with a local sports celebrity -- everyone from Ovechkin to Clinton Portis to Leonsis -- to discuss games and careers. The segments don't make much news, but they do showcase Czarniak's interviewing skills. The segments also are a more personality-driven entree into sports for the mostly female audience that's watching at 5 p.m. on Tuesdays (when "Lunch With Lindsay" airs), says Camille Edwards, Channel 4's news director.

Friends and colleagues insist this won't be Czarniak's last stop. "She's at that interesting point in her career where she has to decide if Washington" is where she wants to be, says Mike Wise, a Post sports columnist and a local sports-radio host who's known Czarniak since she arrived at Channel 4. "And by that I don't mean going to ESPN or a New York or L.A. [station]. I mean, does she want to go to NBC, to do the Olympics? Does she want to do a sitcom?"

Neither possibility seems far-fetched. Czarniak worked for NBC during the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, in 2006 and hosted a gymnastics show for NBC-owned Oxygen cable network at the Beijing Games in 2008.

She's also done some acting, and recently took lessons in Washington. Czarniak's credits include college productions and a well-reviewed part in an original dinner-theater play while she was a news reporter in Jacksonville in 2002. She made her movie debut this spring with a walk-on role in a low-budget film called "Ghosts Don't Exist," produced by Redskins star Chris Cooley and his brother, Tanner.

"Acting is a hobby that satisfies me," she says. "It gets to my creative side. I'd be an idiot not to do it if I had the opportunity out of nowhere. If someone asked, would I do something like ['Saturday Night Live']? Absolutely!"

After all he did for her sports career, what would George say to that? Acting? Somewhere, Lindsay Czarniak's mentor might be shaking his head.

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