The Top of Her Game : Lesley Visser Always Wanted to Be a Sportswriter --and CBS Is Glad
It’s 7 a.m. and Lesley Visser is on the phone from New York. CBS’ go-to sports reporter has slowed her fast break to Monday night’s men’s NCAA basketball championship game to talk about her dream career in sportswriting and broadcasting.
Visser, 39, who has covered punts, jump shots and fastballs with some of the best writers and announcers in the country for almost 20 years, is nearing the top of her game.
Since joining CBS full time in 1988 after 14 years at the Boston Globe, she has become a regular on “The NFL Today,” made the Super Bowl trophy presentation in Minneapolis in 1992 and done features and reports on almost every major sporting event on the schedule.
Her success prompted one widely read L.A. sports columnist to comment not only on her highly regarded skills but also to add: “She’s the best-looking woman on TV since Mary Tyler Moore.”
Now, her goal is to improve.
“I’ve got the job I want,” Visser says. “Now I want to get better. I’d like to have a role like Jack Whitaker. With his infinite knowledge and elegant voice, you can drop him into any sport.”
Visser was one of a handful of female sportswriters to break down the door of the male-dominated press box.
“I always wanted to be a sportswriter,” she said. “And I was so lucky because the Globe was progressive enough to hire a woman.”
She went to work there in 1974 on a grant from the prestigious Carnegie Foundation.
In 1976, just out of Boston College, she became the first woman to cover an NFL team when she was assigned the New England Patriots beat. Her mail wasn’t always complimentary. One “fan” wrote: “I don’t read you or any other broad in the paper.”
But she persevered and was eventually honored with the outstanding woman sportswriter in America award in 1983. She’s also a two-time winner of the New England newswoman of the year award.
Visser began doing part-time feature work for CBS Sports in 1982, following the lead of several Globe colleagues, including Will McDonough, Peter Gammons and Bud Collins, all of whom made the jump from newspapers to television.
Again, luck was with her.
“In television, usually it’s, ‘Let’s hire somebody who knows television and we’ll teach them sports.’ But CBS said, ‘Let’s hire somebody who knows sports and teach them television.
“I had gained respect with 10 years covering pro football and 14 (years) at the Globe. I understood what a box-and-one and a two-three zone defense was. Knowledge is the key.”
For Visser, knowledge was also power. “I told them (CBS officials), ‘What I say is going to be my own thought.’ ”
At first, she was nervous in front of the TV camera. “Everybody said, ‘Just be yourself.’ It looks easy. What is the secret?”
Veteran CBS newsman Charles Osgood gave her the answer: “It’s like a duck on a placid lake paddling furiously underneath.”
This advice plus her football expertise helped her fit in nicely on “The NFL Today” with Greg Gumbel and Terry Bradshaw each Sunday during football season.
What does she bring to “The NFL Today” that helps make it better?
“Good contacts,” she says with an air of confidence. “If Randall Cunningham isn’t speaking to the media, the sources I’ve accumulated help us (talk to him). We did it with Bo Jackson.”
Visser made a lasting personal contact in 1983 when she married veteran CBS play-by-play announcer Dick Stockton. At times, they are able to work together but quite often their assignments take them to different time zones, far away from their apartment in Manhattan or their home in Boca Raton, Fla.
“We see each other three to four days a week,” Visser says. “We never have time for an argument because our conversations are always, ‘Did you know about this,’ or, ‘Hear about that.’ ”
Stockton has signed to announce 50 Oakland Athletics games this season, 20 on the West Coast, for the team’s cable network.
“Dick loves baseball. His favorite day is Oct. 3 because that’s the day the Giants won the pennant in 1951. We drive out to where the Polo Grounds used to be, it’s a housing project now, and he talks about the Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.”
College basketball is one of Visser’s favorite sports and she’s been in the loop of CBS’ coverage of several NCAA Tournaments.
“This is an exciting time of year. I’d like to see a sleeper win it, but no team has come out of the middle of the pack since they put the shot clock in. North Carolina State (in 1983) was the last time. I think the shot clock favors the stronger teams.
“I like Seton Hall,” she says, “and Vanderbilt is a sleeper.”
Visser, who grew up in a sports-loving family (her mom is a big Notre Dame fan), remembers attending her first game as a little girl. “It was a Raiders-Patriots game and I got a sideline pass. I remember looking up at (Raiders’ center) Jim Otto, with the Double O on his jersey. I couldn’t believe how big he was.”
Recently, Visser’s picture, measuring 32 feet high, appeared on a billboard ad for a Chicago clothing store, with Michael Jordan, Jim Harbaugh, Tom Waddle and actor Joe Mantegna.
It seems again she is gazing at new heights.
The championship game of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament airs Monday night at 6 p.m. on CBS.