Karen Kornacki, broadcasting pioneer, signs off after 41 years on Kansas City TV

Someone Karen Kornacki has tried to reach for days is checking in.

“If you’re in town I want you to come to a lunch, for my retirement,” Kornacki said to Jamar Mozee, the former Lee’s Summit North High School football coach, who has relocated to the University of Central Florida to work in the Knights’ football program. “You’re one of the people who was very important to me covering high school sports and I want to thank you.”

The event for high school coaches Kornacki has featured and befriended over the years on KMBC Channel 9 is sure to be well attended, as would any tribute for the anchor/reporter who worked her final shift on Saturday’s 10 p.m. broadcast.

A 45-year career in local sports broadcasting — 41 in Kansas City, where she was this market’s first female sports anchor/reporter — has concluded, and few have had a better view of area sports’ eventful past four decades than Kornacki. She’s covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA Championships and countless high school and local sports achievements.

As the call from Mozee suggests, she’s always favored telling the under-the-radar stories that don’t require a media credential for access.

“That’s what I’ll miss most of all,” she said.

Her final appearance Saturday highlighted a career of humanizing the athletes she covered who in turn showed trust in her. Kornacki made snow angels with former Chiefs cornerback Albert Lewis, visited George Brett just after he got married, hung out in a Buffalo, New York mall and talked to fans with Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith in their fur coats.

A few years ago, she broke from a cluster of reporters and nabbed a one-on-one interview with then-rookie Yankees slugger Aaron Judge.

From her Columbus, Ohio, days, persistence paid off and she joined another reporter for the first interview with Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes after he was fired.

The one interview for which she’s tried but couldn’t land: Brittany Mahomes, the Kansas City Current co-owner, former soccer player, Sports Illustrated swimsuit model and wife of Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes.

“I find her to be amazing,” Kornacki said. “I would have loved to have told her story to our audience.”

Still, it’s been a professional lifetime of accomplishments for Kornacki. She was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame last year, but she didn’t envision this career path growing up in North Tonawanda, N.Y. She graduated with a degrees in speech and mass communications from the University of Denver, and her earliest ambition was to become a TV talk show host.

“I wanted to be the next Phil Donahue,” she said. “Oprah Winfrey didn’t have a show yet.”

Moving back home after college, Kornacki put together audition tapes. In 1979, WBNS in Columbus, Ohio, called and offered her a job in sports. She hadn’t considered sports reporting but wasn’t afraid to try it. Also, college loans were coming due.

“I needed the job,” she said.

Covering sports was a different ballgame for women when Kornacki joined the field. Only four years earlier, women reporters first entered a locker room, at the NHL All-Star Game. In 1978, Sports Illustrated went to court so one of its women reporters could gain clubhouse access at the World Series.

Kornacki began began her own barrier-breaking chapter in Ohio. While covering the Cincinnati Reds, manager John McNamara didn’t want a woman reporter in the clubhouse. Kornacki caught players as they came out, and future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench asked why she wasn’t working with others in the media.

“I told him about McNamara and that I was waiting for players to come out and do interviews,” Kornacki said. “He says, ‘To hell with that.’ He brought me into the clubhouse and went with me to every single person.

“The other guys in the Cincinnati media were like, ‘Maybe if I wore pantyhose Johnny Bench would be nice to me.’”

Kornacki was the first woman reporter through the doors of several teams she covered, seeking the same access as male reporters and doing her part in the battle for equality in the workplace for women.

Her approach started with one thought.

“Total respect,” Kornacki said. “I was a newcomer coming into a man’s world. I know how I would have felt if you came into my room. I’d be ticked off if you had an attitude and said you had a right to be here. I didn’t do that. I was coming into their world. I was going to be respectful.

“The opening line in my book is going to be, ‘I know them by their feet,’ because I’d look at feet and ask my (male) photographer if that person was dressed.”

Plus, Kornacki tried to make sure the athlete had his back to the locker and the camera positioned in a way not to get others who might be dressing in the shot.

Kornacki’s husband, former Yankees pitcher Clay Christiansen, bought her a cedar plank that reads: “The pioneers take all the arrows.”

“That’s why it’s meaningful for me to see that is easier for women today, and that I played a part in it somehow,” she said.

Kornacki influenced the careers of young, sports-minded women in Kansas City who were thinking about careers in media.

“When I was growing up in Lenexa, I could turn on the TV, see Karen, and know a career in sports broadcasting was possible for me,” said Marleah Campbell, who joined KCTV Channel 5 as an anchor/reporter in 2022. “Karen is a trailblazer in every sense of the word.”

When she first showed an interest in broadcasting, Hayley Lewis was encouraged by her parents to follow Kornacki’s broadcasts.

“Having someone of KC break the glass ceiling encouraged me even more,” said Lewis, former KSHB Channel 41 sports anchor and reporter and now host for the Big 12, Bleacher Report and the KC Sports Network. “I felt if she could, so could I.”

What’s next? Kornacki, guided by a deep Christian faith, isn’t certain, but it will involve inspirational speaking. She said she’s more comfortable before a crowd of 1,000 than in front of a camera in the studio.

The stories she can tell, on a stage and in the book she’s planning to write ... Nobody shared work space with former Chiefs quarterback and Hall of Famer Len Dawson at Channel 9 longer than Kornacki. Her love of baseball was heightened by an off-air conversation with Billy Martin. Exclusive interviews with Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Bo Jackson and so many more.

In the early 2000s, Kornacki became an ordained minister, completing a two-year ministry school and graduated valedictorian because she force-fed herself kids’ musical tapes and hummed her way through the final of identifying the 66 books of the Bible.

“Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, Acts, Romans, first and second Corinthians ...”

“I never thought I was the best on television, but I’m good at speaking,” she said. “It’s what I do best. I know that’s my next stage. God doesn’t give you a gift you never use.”