Sarah Kustok is a natural in front of a camera, but her broadcasting career didn’t come naturally.
Kustok earned a master’s in corporate and multicultural communication from DePaul, and she figured she’d be a spokesperson or a speech writer. Broadcasting never entered her mind.
Until she sat in a TV production truck.
While finishing grad school in 2004, Kustok worked as a production runner for ESPN’s early Saturday Big Ten football game. Having always been the focus of the cameras as a star basketball player at Sandburg High School in Orland Park and DePaul, it opened a whole new world.
“That’s where I fell in love with broadcasting,” Kustok said. “I’ll never forget this. It was a game at Michigan, and I sat in the truck. I watched the way a production was put together.
“Playing as an athlete, I never sat in a truck before, so I didn’t fully understand. I thought it was the absolute coolest thing on the planet.”
That led to analyst work for high school and college basketball, sideline work for high school football, and, as Kustok said, “it snowballed from there.”
Kustok became the first primary female analyst for an NBA team in 2017, when the YES Network promoted her from courtside reporter for Nets games.
She’ll take another step in her skyrocketing career Sunday, when she makes her NFL broadcast debut as the sideline reporter for the Titans-Dolphins game on Fox. She’ll work with play-by-play announcer Sam Rosen and analyst Cris Carter.
Kustok has always followed the NFL, having grown up with football because of her brother, Zak, who played quarterback at Northwestern from 1999 to 2001 and spent time with three NFL teams, including the Bears. Her only concern is shaking off the rust after having been off the sideline for so long.
“I’m just thrilled about it,” said Kustok, who’s scheduled for one game but will be in the mix for more. “And I think just as a fan following the NFL, you have a little bit of a baseline of knowing the teams, knowing the stories. But it’s just about digging into it even more.”
Kustok has made a name for herself with Fox, which has held majority ownership of YES since 2014. She has appeared on the Fox Sports 1 morning show “First Things First” and served as game and studio analyst for Big East women’s basketball.
“We don’t have a person like that that’s hosting an FS1 show in addition to working as an analyst on a specific sport,” said Jacob Ullman, Fox senior vice president of production and talent development, who tabbed Kustok for the NFL assignment. “It shows versatility, and it also shows how talented she is.”
Her talent began to manifest itself at Comcast SportsNet Chicago (now NBC Sports Chicago), where Kustok worked from 2009 to ’12. She honed an array of skills there, from anchoring in the studio to reporting for long-form features. She also became a favorite among viewers and players.
“I remember my last night on the air was at a White Sox game, and A.J. Pierzynski put a shaving-cream pie in my face,” Kustok said. “I felt such a great love for the people I was covering, the people I got to work with and the city itself. And I still feel that way.”
Parting with CSN for YES was sweet sorrow. YES reached out to her agent, and Kustok couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work in New York and cover basketball full-time. She was the courtside reporter for five seasons before being promoted to analyst.
Kustok’s transition was eased by the relationships she had developed with Nets play-by-play announcers Ian Eagle and Ryan Ruocco (he fills in when Eagle has another obligation). Having listened to them courtside, she was familiar with their rhythm and tendencies. Combined with their friendship, it made for what Kustok called an “absolutely extraordinary” first season.
“For me, being a basketball junkie, the fact that I’m going home and getting a chance to watch NBA games or break down film, that in itself was like, man, I’m lucky,” she said.
She’s also gracious, as anyone who knows her can attest.
“She’s extremely likable and a really nice person,” Ullman said. “I think it’s refreshing for everybody that you can be good at your job and also be really great to deal with.”
Though Kustok is a pioneer of sorts, she doesn’t want that to define who she is. She understands she’s a role model for women in a profession more populated with men, but she’d prefer that gender not be part of the conversation. She’d rather just be an analyst than a female analyst.
“I am very aware that this is something that’s unique, and I want it to be less unique,” Kustok said. “And I think that’s starting to happen.
“I could go down the list of the different areas of females being in positions that we typically think are male roles. And I love it because I just want the younger generation to not even think about that.”
Will Al & Cris see Bears again?
The NFL gave the Bears one appearance on “Sunday Night Football,” and the league made sure to get it out of the way early. The NBC announcing team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth will be on the call Sunday, when the Bears visit the Packers.
But with Khalil Mack on board and the team’s prospects on the rise, perhaps the Bears will be flexed into another ‘‘SNF’’ appearance. Flexible scheduling takes effect in Week 5.
One possibility is the Rams game in Week 14 at Soldier Field. It would give NBC the nation’s second- and third-largest markets, and it might be a better option than the currently scheduled matchup of Steelers-Raiders. The Rams are scheduled for ‘‘SNF’’ in Week 15 against the Eagles, but a team making consecutive appearances isn’t unprecedented.
Or maybe the rematch with the Packers in Week 15 bumps Eagles-Rams. ‘‘SNF’’ has repeated opponents within a season, too.
The Bears also could be bumped to a 3:25 p.m. kickoff on CBS for Fox. They have 12 games scheduled for noon starts.