Stories Of Americans Passionately At Play

"Sport, at its best, at its most human, is able to inspire an innocence and joy that is unique to each of us."
~ Richard Corman ~
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Pro Paintball: Not Your Ordinary Team-Building Event

Think You Can Run A Pro Sports Franchise? Can You Handle The Heat?

Not too long ago, I received an email whose subject line read simply, “HELLO!!!!” Now, normally I tend to shy away from such digital vociferousness, but a quick look at the sender’s identity changed my mind. Because this was Danette Kelley Smith, for whom capital letters and exuberant use of punctuation is merely her effusive way of saying, well…HELLO!!!! She wouldn’t have it any other way. And neither would I.

I first met Danette on a Southwest Airlines flight on which she was en route to: a) check out colleges with her daughter, and b) play in a Vegas-based poker tournament. I’m not sure in which order. It didn’t matter though, because we spent most of the flight talking about professional paintball, the vocation chosen by her son, Ryan. You know, the usual topic of conversation with new acquaintances on a plane.

At the time, I was just finishing up a year in which I attended 100 athletic contests involving 50 different sports, and my spectating dance card was pretty well full. But Danette can be persuasive. Which is why the very first sporting event I went to after I’d finished going to sporting events was a professional paintball tournament. As an invited guest of You Know Who.

Somewhat to my surprise, it really was an enjoyable experience. And from time to time since then, Danette, with a new fan on her hands, has fed me info about the goings-on within the pro paintball community. It had been a while since I’d last heard from her, but given the number of visitations I’d been receiving from Ghosts of Sporting Events Past [see Related Stuff], it seemed only logical that she would pop up in my email box, enthusiastically suggesting that I make the drive out to Riverside, where “our” Houston Heat would be playing in the Paintball Sports Promotions (PSP) West Coast Open. So of course I went. To support our Houston Heat.

It was only when I arrived at Rancho Jurupa Regional Sports Park did I learn that Danette was not just tossing off words blithely. When she said “our” Houston Heat, she was being quite literal. For she and her husband, Randy, actually own this professional paintball team. With a payroll full of players, a national (and occasionally international) travel schedule, and everything else that entails. Why? Well…why not?

As you might imagine, this intrigued me. I tried to remember the last time that I’d been hosted by a professional sports team owner, and eventually settled on “Never.” I had some questions. So for the better part of an hour, our grandstand conversation ping-ponged back and forth between what was happening on the field below us and what it was like to be a sports mogul.

I eventually agreed to a follow-up conversation about the latter [see Related Stuff], and we settled down to focus on the action.

In my initial introduction to paintball, I had seen the seven-man version, in which action moved at breakneck speed, and players were eliminated in relative eye-blinks. Not the case at this West Coast Open, for two primary reasons. First, teams consisted of just five players, who space themselves out well throughout a field laden with sheltering objects of various sizes and shapes.

This version of paintball was much more strategic in nature, with field awareness at least as important as shooting skill. Like chess…with paint guns. Don’t get me wrong, though—marksmanship is at even more of a premium here. From what I saw of the five-man game, teams are less likely to storm the field and exchange kills in rat-a-tat bursts of fire. Therefore, players typically have only a split second in which to hit an opponent that has made himself vulnerable for the brief period of time it takes to lean out, aim, and squeeze off a volley of shots.

The second major departure from my previous experience was that players could—and did—receive instruction from outside the cage of play. Grandstand-based assistants (as well as the occasional team owner) were free to sing out the location of opposing players. For some odd reason though, the rules forbid shouting the number of those players who remained hidden within the maze of obstacles. Why location and not number? Nobody I spoke with knew for sure. But what was certain was that, where there was a will to impart that precious intelligence, there was a way. The Houston Heat’s way happened to involve pink shirts.

At the beginning of each point, five women bearing pink shirts arranged themselves demurely together in the very top row of the bleachers, within easy sight of the players on the field, should they be inclined to glance upward. Nothing to look at here. Just us gals with a fondness for pink.

Once play began though, as opposing players were hit and eliminated, pink-shirted ladies one by one stood up to stretch their legs. If the number of pink shirts still seated happened to equal the number of opponents still in play…well that was completely coincidental. It was a strategy so brilliant that everyone involved knew it would soon be outlawed by the Poobahs of paintball.

From my perspective, it seems that the Poobahs are a pretty heavy-handed bunch, unaccountable to anyone—least of all the actual owners of the teams that make up the PSP league. At one point I asked Danette how often the league held an owners meeting…or a spirited Skype session…or an exchange of tweets dedicated to discussing league business and attaining informed consensus on things like, ummm, rules, for example. To my amazement, I learned that the next organized get-together of PSP owners will be the first. “We do get emails from the league now and again,” Danette told me, “and we can submit emails with suggestions.” If Roger Goodell partnered with the great and powerful Wizard of Oz, this is what it would look like.

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