Stephanie Lee used to spend her weekends organizing birthday parties for children. It was 2009, and she had graduated from San Diego State University just the year before. Every Saturday and Sunday, Lee was in charge of 10 different parties for groups of 30 kids and their parents at the Seattle Children’s Museum.
At times, it was an unenviable job. Parents often forgot lighters for the birthday cake candles. Kids often spilled drinks on their clothes, which then had to hurriedly be washed in time for the party. But no matter how big the storm, Lee quelled it with patience, with understanding, with grace. It was a talent that continually amazed her former boss, Jennifer Ross.
“I think everything that it takes to do that is what makes Stephanie so great at everything she touches,” Ross said.
Throughout the nearly six years she worked at the museum, however, Lee longed for another career path. She was nuts about sports, regularly attending Seahawks and Mariners games, as well as taking in minor league contests in Everett, 25 miles outside of Seattle. She once planned a baseball-themed event at the museum that featured 8-foot cutouts of players.
Brittany Baurer, Lee’s former coworker and roommate, said Lee was well-versed in the rules and history of all sports.
“I always thought I knew a lot about sports,” said Baurer, who played water polo in college. “Then I met Stephanie and I realized that I did not.”
ABOUT STEPHANIE LEE
Position: General manager, Utah Royals FC
Team goals: Win an NSWL title, make club financially viable
Hobbies: Refurbishing furniture, creating photo albums, hanging with her cat Jett Lee, traveling, spending time outdoors
Favorite football team: San Francisco 49ers
So it came as no surprise when Lee took a job with the Seattle Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League in January 2015 and eventually rose to where she is today: the general manager of the Utah Royals FC. The Royals named her GM in January as part of a front office restructure. She is one of only two females in that position in the nine-team NWSL — and is the only woman general manager of a professional sports team in Utah.
Lee fell into the world of women’s professional soccer. She always figured she'd work in professional football, and at one time had designs on becoming a sports agent, but changed her mind after interacting with agents while interning with the World Series of Poker in 2008.
In 2014, she took an internship with the Reign in public relations and communications. She stayed in touch with those she worked with and when the opportunity to apply for a full-time position with the Reign came up a year later, she jumped at it.
Lee worked in various capacities with the Reign from 2015-2018. It was during that time that Lee met Royals coach Laura Harvey, then coach and GM of the Reign. The two developed a close professional and personal relationship, forged when Lee was the team’s administrator and handled everything from travel arrangements to training schedules to team meals.
“I think in the admin role, a big part of my job was just making her job easier,” Lee told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And I think that that makes it easier for her to like me as a human if I'm making things easier for her.”
Lee also learned in the ins and outs of an NWSL organization, including how Harvey navigated to acquire players. Reign owner Bill Predmore said the staff in Seattle was small, so he wouldn’t be surprised if Lee was informally involved in conversations surrounding what players to bring to the Reign.
Predmore doesn’t remember exactly how Lee came to work for Seattle. He said it may have been as simple as she applied for the job and landed an interview. But it was clear from the start that she was the right woman for the job, he said.
“We needed somebody that was super well-organized, somebody that was smart, somebody that could manage relationships with some pretty big-name players,” Predmore said. “Those are difficult relationships to navigate and it takes somebody with a high degree of confidence and somebody who's able to build trust quickly with the players and be professional in that spot. It seemed like she had that set of skills and I think she certainly proved herself during her time with us.”
When Lee took the GM job with the Royals, she realized her former relationships with the players had to change. She could no longer be as close to them as she was last year, when she worked as the club’s managing director.
“That's tough for me in my background where I've come from and being in positions where as admin you're on the road with them and you're going out to dinner with them and you're hanging with them,” Lee said. “So being now in a position where I have to make decisions that A) either affect their personal life, or B) they don't like, is tough. It's a little hit to the ego sometimes. But that's part of the job and that's what I was striving for and what I was going after.”
The other relationship that is somewhat changing is the one between Lee and Harvey. When the Royals were founded and Harvey had already been installed as coach, Lee applied for the managing director job without telling her. She said it was important to make sure Harvey didn’t feel pressured to hire her, and that Predmore didn’t feel like Harvey was whisking her away when leaving for Utah.
The two are still close, but the dynamics of their working relationship has shifted. Lee said the two are still navigating the change, but it has gone smoothly so far.
“This year is interesting for us and a shift for us simply in terms of [organization] charts and titles,” Lee said. “Technically a general manager sits above a head coach. So we’re learning what our new relationship is and kind of how to work together in a different perspective.”
Harvey said someone within the RSL organization asked last year if Lee would be a good fit for the managing director role. She gave her resounding approval and is glad the two are working together again.
“We didn’t come as a package,” Harvey said, “but I’m really glad that we are.”
Lee is still adjusting to her new role as GM, she said. For instance, player acquisitions are a “tag team” effort between her and Harvey. When getting Vero Boquete to join Utah, Harvey said she handled the conversations with the former Spanish national team player while Lee took care of “all the business stuff.”
“We work well that way,” Harvey said. “As she develops, I think that those player acquisition conversations will become even more natural for her.”
Lee’s goals for the next few years are bringing a championship to the Royals and continuing to make the club a place players want to join. She also wants to the club a successful business financially, and believes it is close to doing just that.
“We’re only a year and a half in and I think we’ve done a really good job,” Lee said. “But we have a lot ahead of us in terms of making sure that Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front and Utah and the United States and the world know who we are.”
Those closest to her said Lee’s best — and probably most useful — quality is her communication. Harvey said Lee “won't take any prisoners,” but is also helpful with and respectful of those she works with. Baurer described Lee as a good listener and someone with which it’s easy to have a conversation. Also, Baurer said, she has a way with words.
Lee said she won’t think about where her career could take her next until she meets her goals with the Royals. But while it may have been an unusual journey to get here, she’s right where wants to be.
“This path that I’ve been on, it’s not what I imagined in working in sports,” Lee said. “But it’s going well so far.”
UTAH ROYALS FC VS. SEATTLE REIGN
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » Friday, 8 p.m.
Last meeting » , Seattle 1, URFC 0 (Aug. 11, 2018, Rio Tinto Stadium
Records » URFC 5-2-2, Seattle 3-1-5
About Seattle » Scout Watson (concussion), Kristen McNabb (calf), Morgan Andrews (hamstring) will not play due to injury. … Eight players are away from the team due to competing in the Women’s World Cup. … Bethany Balcer leads team with three goals. … Has not lost in last six games (3W, 3D).
About URFC » Amy Rodriguez leads team with give goals. … Vero Boquete listed as questionable with an ankle injury. … Did not win against Seattle in three meetings in 2018 (2L, 1D). … Katie Bowen, Rachel Corsie and Desiree Scott still on international duty following their respective national teams’ elimination from the World Cup. … Currently on a two-game undefeated streak (1W, 1D).