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Conversations With…Houston Heat Co-Owner Danette Kelley Smith

Exactly how does one go from ordinary citizen to professional franchise owner? Find out how—and why—from Danette Kelley Smith.

When you first meet Danette Kelley Smith, you know right away that this woman has a heart the size of her native Texas. And while Will Rogers may not have specifically been referring to Danette when he famously commented that a stranger is just a friend that he hadn’t met yet, he certainly could have been. So it was that within fifteen minutes of taking a seat next to her on a cross-country Southwest Airlines flight, I’d learned that she was an aspiring professional poker player…and the co-owner of a highly accomplished professional paintball franchise. Since that time, I’ve enjoyed several conversations with Danette. Like this one, about—among other things—the joys of her favorite sport…

But enough about waves, and me…let’s talk about Danette Kelley Smith, co-owner of the professional paintball team, the Houston Heat.

Crazy, isn’t it?

Yes, at first glance it does sound a little crazy, which is why I really wanted to talk it through with you. You own a professional sports team, which is not something that a whole lot of people can say. So revisit for me how paintball originally came into your life.

Well, it originally came into our lives when we lived in Oklahoma City—we lived there from 2001 to 2003, so husband working at UPS, doing team-building things for his UPS people, and asked son Ryan to go along. And, I don’t know if Randy had ever played paintball before, but it was the first time Ryan played, and I just know he absolutely fell in love with it. I guess when people find that sport that just clicks with them…you know, he had played baseball, he had played basketball, like all little kids do. Even played some soccer. And he always did well—I mean, he’s athletic. But nothing grabbed him like paintball.

Then we moved to Chicago, and he was in middle school when he really started playing again, or picked it up. I guess he met some kids at school that played paintball, and of course that rang in his ear and he said, ‘Where do you play?’ So he started playing at a local field—I say local, it was forty-five minutes away. And then, the PSP, which is the largest league in the world, they have an event in Chicago every year. So in 2007 our team, Distortion played five-man, started in the lowest division—that was when he started competing on a national level. So he competed the last half of ’07, and then Distortion competed in ’08, ’09, 2010. And in 2011, they won, in their division, which was Division Two, they won World Cup. So they had been, you know, they had moved up divisions each year, just progressively done better and better, and Randy, my husband just really wanted to compete at the ultimate highest level in paintball, and put together a professional paintball team and just like I said, compete at that higher level.

Was the professional part of it a big thing all along for Ryan and Randy, or did they just continue to get better and seek better competition to a point where all that was left was the professional level?

I think that might have been it. I’ll tell you why I say that. I don’t recall Randy and Ryan going to the grandstands to watch the pro teams play. You know, I don’t think that was…The driving force…in anybody’s mind in the beginning. Definitely no. So it was an evolutionary thing where they just got better.  I don’t know when it switched… well what happened in the year 2011 we actually had a team in Canada as well, because we were living there. So we competed in, whenever we played World Cup, which is always in October, always in Florida, they actually had the Richmond Cup—which was the championship of the Canadian event—they were playing it in Florida as well. And so Distortion was playing World Cup U.S., and we had a team that was playing Canada. And both of our teams won first place, which was just craziness. And then, like six weeks later, in November—maybe it was four, it wasn’t that much longer—we played a seven-man event in Vegas… What happened was Aftershock is a pro team in the PSP division, and they were not going to play in the NPPL, which was the seven-man that came to in Huntington Beach. Aftershock as a team was not going to play in that series. And so my husband Randy asked the owner of Aftershock if he could take Aftershock to the event as long as he had control over who the roster was. And the owner said, ‘Yes.’ So it was actually Randy and I that traveled with the team and Randy chose the roster, and we were under the name of Aftershock. In Vegas, Aftershock won first place, which still to this day is probably the most insane victory of all.  And why do you say that?  Because it was four guys who were seasoned pros and four rookies from Distortion. And totally not on the radar and beat Dynasty, which is you know, the best-known team around the world of paintball, and took first place. I mean, it was just, it was just crazy, I think, just because of the roster.

Now what was the triggering event at which you said, “Let’s buy a team. Let’s create a new professional paintball franchise”?  

I think after Randy won three first place trophies in a matter of six weeks, he was ready to move on. You know, having a pro team.   Now did it just come up in conversation? Did Randy sit down with you and say, ‘Danette, I think I want to start a new franchise’…or vice versa?  No, I think we’d been talking about it, off and on, mentioning things during the 2011 season. ‘You know, I think next year I’d like to go ahead and have a pro team.’ He’d just kind of say that every once in a while. So I mean it wasn’t a surprise to me. I was just like, ‘OK.’

Do you remember the day that the Houston Heat came into existence? 

I remember writing…Randy wanted the name Houston in the team name because that really is ‘quote’ home for us. I remember having my little spiral notebook and writing all of these “H” names I could come up with. What would go with Houston, you know? [laughs] Finally I narrowed it down and I don’t even remember what the forerunners were, but we both liked Houston Heat. And that was kind of how that name came into being. He knew he was going to have some of the kids that played with us for Distortion, offering them an opportunity to play with Houston Heat. And then we had had some guys who played with us in Canada that played on Aftershock, and played for some other pro teams, that we invited to play with us. And then the last bit came together through a guy in Germany who owns a company that was doing our, when we were Distortion, made our jerseys for us, and he was going to be our sponsor for Houston Heat. He of course had contacts around the world in the paintball industry, and he knew the type of team owner Randy is, and he also knew some guys who were looking to make a change. And they happened to live in Moscow and played for a team that had been very dominant for probably eight years in the paintball world. And a few of those—four, actually—in the beginning were looking to make a change, and three of them said ‘yes.’ So we got three Russians on our Houston Heat roster. So that was the big news around the world for awhile, for sure.

Did this whole process go smoothly from starting the team—were there any hiccups? What was the biggest surprise that came down the pike? 

No, the only hiccup was I moved! [laughs]. It was just like, in January we decided to…we were living in Canada and decided to start this team, and at the end of January my husband got a phone call that we were moving to Southern California. So it was pretty crazy, starting a new professional paintball team with people living all across the country and in another country and trying to figure out how to manage it all. I look back and I go, ‘Wow! I did that? Really? That’s pretty amazing.’ Really was. And we had a phenomenal 2012 season. There was five events in the U.S. and we took first in three of ‘em.  And that was your rookie season as team owners… Umm-hmm.  

In general, now that you’ve been at this for your third year now—what’s been the biggest challenge that you’ve come across of owning a sports team?

Wow…[long pause]…That is a hard question, cause I…I don’t know if I can label any of them as a big challenge… What’s the biggest of the non-challenge?  Umm…I would say anytime that you’re managing or working with a group of people, the challenge of keeping harmony and keeping that kind of, you know, ‘everybody on the same page’ spirit, sometimes can be slightly challenging because of all the different personalities. You know, you’re talking about a team roster of ten or eleven guys, plus the coach, plus the owners…you know, it’s a large group of people that live together for two weeks and everybody remain positive and all that. But like I said, it wasn’t a big challenge. Every once in a while there’d be this little ehhh, you know? A little small hiccup, and that’s about it.

OK, let’s look at the flip side. What’s the biggest reward out of owning a pro sports team?

Oh my gosh. You know, for me…I think for Randy and I, it’s about the relationships. And it’s about knowing that you’re a part of dreams coming true for young adults. Knowing that because we made this commitment, because we chose to do this, it has now affected so-and-so’s life in a way…and he’s got to do things, and experience things that he would have never, probably, never been able to do without it. Just to know that you have a part in blessing someone else’s life is huge.

Where do you see this going—and I’ll ask you this in a number of ways—for you and Randy? Do you envision owning this team for the duration? Is there a point at which you think you’ll say, ‘This was a great experience, but it’s time to back away’ and sell the team to somebody? What are your thoughts on down the road for you and Randy?

Oh, we won’t be doing it forever. I think it’s a season of life—an amaaazing season of life, and one that will always be treasured and remembered and talked about, I’m sure, forever.

What’s the event that you’ve attended where you’ve looked around and said ‘This really is a big deal’?  Oh, World Cup. Just because it is the largest participated in paintball event anywhere in the world. Teams that come from all different countries in October to Florida to play in the PSP World Cup event.

Where do you see the sport of paintball in this country headed? Do you see it growing? Staying the same? Will it always be a niche sport, below the radar screen?

[sighs] I mean, of course everybody in the sport wants it to really do something bigger, better, faster, stronger, you know, and be televised or whatever. I do know that in the last, I think it’s been three seasons there have been a live webcast for all of the PSP events, that has improved drastically. It’s pretty phenomenal, as far as the commentating and being able to watch the pro field, it’s what’s on the webcast. You know, it’d be so great to find some really large sponsor out there that would help it get on TV, because I think it’s a pretty cool sport to watch and um, might get them excited about going out and playing, you know?

And you and I had talked briefly, but if you could expound a little bit on—Do you think paintball, or some version of paintball is a sport that one could play for most of their life? 

Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, I think it’s something that you’ve just gotta play with people that are at the same level as you, right? [laughs] So that you don’t get beat up real bad. But I think that’s like it is in any sport, right? In any sport, if you’re competing against people who are your same skill level it makes it fun. If you’re always just getting totally beat up, I don’t think anybody wants to do that on a repetitive basis. So I think as long as you’re playing with people that are your same skill level or maybe slightly above, then yeah, you can do it as long as your knees will let you, right? You know, run and squat and dive. I mean, it can be pretty physical, but if it’s a bunch of older guys out there, you’ll all be limping to your bunkers. [laughing]  And you had mentioned that there’s an entire aspect of paintball—that’s woods game paintball?  There is woods ball, and it’s a whole different deal. I’ve never really watched it or know anything at all about it, but I know there’s all sorts of woods ball games and big scenario games all around the country at paintball fields. So I think between the woods and the speedball, there’s something for everybody. It’s just about finding that time, carving out that time, making time, finding something you love to do, to go do it. And somebody to do it with.  Right. And the common refrain, the most likely reason for people that just stop playing sports is they have kids, they have a family, they start…and time becomes less and less available. But our positioning is that here’s a way to kill two birds with one stone: introduce your kids to the sports that you like to play. And they may or may not carry on with the sport, but it gives you the time to spend family time showing them something, and you’re giving them the gift of presence, but you’re also potentially giving them the gift of a sport that they can then in turn play for life.  Right. And you know, there are…there are many father/son duos out on the paintball field, recreationally. You know, it started that way. There’s a lot of father sons out there that have played together, do play together, wind up coaching their own, putting a team together—something like that.  And who knows where it can take you? You can one day find yourself the owner of a professional franchise“Yeah. Yeah. Pretty cool.

When you meet people and paintball comes up as a topic of conversation , have you noticed in the six or seven years that you’ve been intimately involved in paintball, have you noticed that more people know of it, or is it still that far below the radar screen?

Oh I still think about ninety-nine out a hundred go, ‘Huh?’ [laughs]”  And I have to say I was one of those ninety-nine when you and I first met.  [laughing] You were number ninety-nine.  I knew that paintball existed. I had no idea of the level and the reach…  Right, that there was a pro…and I think, coming back to that, that’s probably very true. A lot of people have heard about paintball. No one knows that there’s professional paintball players.  Do you consider that part of your mission—to help get the visibility?  Oh yeah—I love that. I love that.  You are a paintball evangelist. I am. I am an ambassador. I love it.

Last question for you, Danette…and you touched on this earlier and I wanted to make sure that this point got the full focus—Why do you do it? Why do you own a professional paintball team?

Oh my gosh. It’s so…there’s so many layers. You know, I think there’s always a reason we start something, and there’s different reasons why we stay. Initially I started it because I was supportive of my son and what he wanted to do. Why I do it is because I do love the competition. Even though I’m not personally competing, my team is competing, you know? I’ve always been, I don’t know what you’d call it…I like to root for a team. I always have. So I like having somebody to cheer for and encourage and you know, all that. I enjoy the relationships. Also, these guys, they keep me young because they make me laugh. They just crack me up. Now don’t get me wrong. I get really mad at ‘em too sometimes, but they really do make me laugh, and so that’s good for me. I guess that’s that, you know, ‘win/win’ situation. I cook for…our deal has always been ‘I cook for you and you win for me.’

 

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