How to Work in Sports—Without Being a Professional Athlete

Stephanie Harris Issue 07 - Sept/ Oct 2013, Legal Leave a Comment

Nona Lee, senior vice president and general counsel for the Arizona Diamondbacks, reveals why baseball and business have more in common than you think.

By Stephanie Harris

2013-09-05 16_08_55-FM0913_NonaLee_draftFew people are able to blend their passion with their career quite like Nona Lee. A former college athlete who played basketball at Pepperdine University, she always has been passionate about sports. Today, Lee serves as Senior Vice President (SVP) and General Counsel for the Arizona Diamondbacks, an opportunity that has enabled her to merge her practice in law with her passion for sports. But her path to success was not so straightforward.

“I refer to my career as the ‘long and winding road’ because there was not any clear direction at the outset,” she said. “It took 10 years after undergrad for me to go to law school because I wasn’t quite sure I was committed to the idea of being a lawyer.”

Portraits of Nona LeeLee received her juris doctor from the Oklahoma City University School of Law, where she graduated summa cum laude. After working for four years as a litigator, specializing in commercial litigation and personal injury with an emphasis on medical malpractice and wrongful death claims, Lee’s career goals changed completely.

“In 1997, the WNBA started,” she explained. “Having been a college basketball player, it was all I could think about: “How do I merge my practice with sports?’”

With no real understanding of the career opportunities that existed for lawyers in sports, Lee began networking and researching as much as possible about the industry. She learned that she would need to become a transactional attorney, which is what she did. Lee joined Gallagher & Kennedy as a Transactional Associate; in the meantime, the company had arranged for her to interview with the Phoenix Suns, whose General Counsel would be leaving the organization. She went through the Suns’ interview process and, although she did not land the soon-to-be-vacated job, the organization created an Associate General Counsel position for Lee and her dream career became a reality.

Building a Team

When Lee joined the Suns, the team—along with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Phoenix Mercury—was owned by Jerry Colangelo, so even though she was a Suns employee, she worked for all three teams. Lee was promoted to VP, Associate General Counsel in 2004, around the same time Colangelo sold his ownership interest in the Diamondbacks and Suns to different parties.

“It was clear there was a potential for conflict of interest,” Lee said, “so I asked for the opportunity to come start the Legal Department at the Diamondbacks [because these services were previously provided by Suns employees].”

As the General Counsel and only member of the legal team, Lee had free rein to build the department as she saw fit.

“I had been with Suns at this point for five years, so I decided to structure the department based largely upon that experience for me and what worked well there,” Lee said. “I brought a lot of those practices over here, but built upon them.”

nona_lee_2With a limited budget, her first initiative was to hire a high-level administrative assistant who could help with the day-to-day work. Within two years, Lee demonstrated to executive management how expanding the Legal Department could be a cost-effective move for the organization—one that would help improve internal efficiencies—and she was permitted to bring on an Associate General Counsel.

While the occasional particularly complex, specialized or protracted matter is sent to outside counsel, today the Legal Department of three, including Lee, handles most of the legal issues for the Diamondbacks organization.

“Everybody always assumes that all we do is work on player contracts, but that is such a small fraction of my practice,” she said. “In our case, our practice is primarily transactional, about 75 percent to 80 percent. It’s more about the business of baseball—sponsorship and broadcasting agreements and property matters and facility-related agreements, among others. I also chair the risk management efforts for the organization, and the department is heavily involved in business continuity and crisis response planning and management.”

Lee noted that because the legal team is small, they work as a closely knit group. “We have a good time, and we work hard,” she said. “We enjoy each other and spend a lot of time laughing. Everybody brings something of value.”

Working in sports, the environment tends to be more relaxed than that of other corporate atmospheres, according to Lee, and all employees share a common interest: “There’s a passion for sports that flows throughout the culture, and that’s what binds people together. It can vary from organization to organization within sports, but the culture here at the Diamondbacks is the best that I’ve ever seen and it’s something we’re known for.”

Portraits of Nona Lee

Building Dreams

In addition to fostering an enjoyable work environment for its employees, the Diamondbacks organization also places emphasis on community involvement, which is something Lee too feels strongly about. She is an active Board Member of the Sports Lawyers Association, a nonprofit organization for sports lawyers. She also recently was elected to the Florence Crittenton Board, and is involved with the Phoenix Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy Alumni Association and its strategic planning efforts.

But the organization Lee holds closest to her heart is the one she founded in 2001: the Phoenix Women’s Sports Association (PWSA), a nonprofit that helps girls and women find their power through sports.

“I remember lying in bed one night thinking about how blessed I felt to have landed with the position with the Suns—my dream job—and how it could not just be about that, about me,” Lee recalled. “I had to have been there for a reason, and I needed to give back. I recognized I was uniquely positioned to help other girls like myself who only often reach a level of success because of the lessons they learned and life skills they developed through participation in sports. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t play sports and have those opportunities.”

After speaking with several female athletes and executives in the Phoenix area, Lee realized that there was need for a group that afforded young women opportunities to participate in organized sports. So, she embarked on a mission to create such a thing, the result of which is the PWSA.


“We have three key initiatives, and one is a club sports scholarship program to provide girls from underserved communities who demonstrate strong athletic potential and financial need the ability to participate in club sports, who otherwise would not be able to do so,” Lee explained. “The goal is not just to have them play, but also to help them develop their skills at the highest level in a place where they have the greatest exposure to scouts, so hopefully they get a college athletic scholarship. It’s really about education and helping improve their chances at having a quality life.”

The PWSA also offers the GOLD Program, a speaker series to educate girls in the community and teach them about having goals, overcoming obstacles, what leadership means and the importance of determination. The other initiative is the Sports Explosion, a one-day fitness event held in the fall that aims to educate the community about the importance of sports and fitness.

“The point is to talk to people about the importance of being fit and active, and show them there’s a sport or activity out there for everyone,” Lee said. “ We help give them a chance to try different activities throughout the day for free, and we have elite athletes out there talking about the importance of being fit and what it’s done for them.”  Featured athletes have included Brandi Chastain, Luis Gonzalez, Dan O’Brien and Laila Ali, for example.

While most of the PWSA’s events are aimed at girls at the junior high through high school levels, the Sports Explosion event is open to people of all ages.

Over the years, the intentions Lee set out with in creating the organization have been realized as several of the girls involved have in fact gone on to play college athletics—many on scholarships.

“It’s about giving back,” Lee said, “I want to help some other girl to eventually do what I do, who may not have otherwise have had the opportunity, or been able to find the courage or strength to do it herself.”

While the PWSA will always be a large part of her life, Lee recently resigned from the Board and will stay on in a more traditional Founder role, providing support as needed. “There are a number of reasons for my decision, including just knowing it was time because part of leading is stepping aside so others can lead,” she said. “I felt strongly that the time had come, and it came from an awareness I have that it was never about me. I want it to be about the girls and have other people put their vision into that and take the organization to the next level.”

Lee noted that a common mistake people make in the nonprofit world is that they stay too long in a role, which can stifle the organization. “I feel strongly that I can still support the organization in all the ways that are significant for me, and I always will, but someone else needs to lead the charge now and bring new vision to take it to the next level.”

Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.


Nona's Key Partners:
Gallagher & Kennedy (Outside Counsel)

Stephanie Harris

Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.

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