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Batons Vie to Be the Designated Hitter

October 16, 2002|Jerry Hirsch and Gayle Pollard-Terry

The battle over bangers is inflating.

As the Anaheim Angels and the San Francisco Giants prepare to fight for the World Series crown, a rivalry is developing between the two manufacturers of the plastic tube-shaped noisemakers that are the rage of California baseball fans.

CheerStix, a Beijing-based firm run by an American expatriate, won the initial round, selling the Angels 100,000 pairs of inflatable red batons they'll give to fans at the first two games of the World Series, starting Saturday at Edison Field in Anaheim.

Banging two 26-inch tubes together has become the signature rallying call for Angel fans eager to create a deafening din to distract opponents. The tubes also serve as handy advertising tools for corporate sponsors.

But rival banger maker Vonco Products of Lake Villa, Ill., is still in the game. The Giants ordered its ThunderStix Noisemakers brand batons for one of the three home games it expects to play during the series, said Valerie McGuire, a team official.

And Vonco may have scored a marketing win from all the publicity the noisemakers have garnered in recent weeks.

Baseball announcers refer to the batons as thunder sticks regardless of the maker. Vonco supplied the Angels with ThunderStix for several games during the two rounds of playoff games.

"We may be competing head to head for the World Series and the playoffs, but demand overall for the product is building for both companies," said Les Leske, a Vonco vice president.

The family-owned business, which also makes plastic goods such as medical specimen bags, has created a Web site and plans to protect its trademark, he said.

The companies argue over which is the market leader. CheerStix says it has 80% of the market. Leske says it's evenly split. No one keeps independent statistics for what by most estimates is an industry with $2 million in annual sales.

The inflatable batons first appeared about 10 seasons ago at a baseball game in South Korea, said Jim Lundberg, who owns CheerStix.

Lundberg thought the noisemakers, also called bangers, would work in the U.S. and that he could produce them for less than the Korean supplier. His first big order came in 1997 when he supplied 25,000 pairs for an international soccer match in Portland, Ore.

"Next stop was basketball, the NBA playoffs in 1998," Lundberg said. "I called up the [Seattle Super-] Sonics and offered them 1,000 for free." He got an order the next day for 15,000 sets. "The Sonics told the [Portland Trail] Blazers, the Blazers told the [Charlotte] Hornets, the Hornets told the [Phoenix] Suns, the Suns told the [Indiana] Pacers, the Pacers told the [Los Angeles] Lakers. Eight of the 16 teams used it."

The batons also are popular at women's soccer games and at college football games.

But the noise can be so distracting that the Pacific 10 Conference decided last week to ban the bangers from its football games next season.

Like a baseball manager plotting his next pitching move, Lundberg won the Angels World Series sale with crafty strategy.

"When the Angels beat the Yankees, I knew that they had to be out of sticks and that ThunderStix probably wouldn't be able to turn a new order around quick enough for the American League Championship series against the [Minnesota] Twins," he said.

"I left messages for the Angels management Monday morning and by Monday evening I had the order," Lundberg said in a telephone interview from Beijing, where he operates his banger factory.

A pair of CheerStix sells for as little as 30 cents, including air freight, Lundberg said. He plans to fly from Beijing to personally deliver 100 boxes -- 1,000 pairs to each box -- to the team Friday.

ThunderStix, which are made in Illinois, sell for about 40 cents a set for lots of 50,000.

"As an American company working with American sponsors for the American national pastime, we like to think that the teams would want to order from a domestic company rather than sending the business to China," Leske said.

The Angels first used the bangers for a home game in July. The team looked at giving red rally towels to each fan but balked at the price.

The team settled on the batons as a less costly alternative, said Robert Alvarado, the Angels' director of marketing. And the banger craze was launched.

The sporting teams rarely pay for the noisemakers, instead passing on the cost to an advertising sponsor, whose name appears on the side of the batons. The tab for a one-day supply for a full stadium runs from $16,000 to $20,000, Alvarado said.

For the World Series, though, the bangers almost went silent.

Alvarado said the series is controlled by major league baseball, which months ago lined up Nextel Communications Inc. to sponsor a rally towel giveaway, regardless of who was playing.

"We got on the phone with major league baseball Monday morning and asked for some help because we didn't want to go without the sticks," he said.

Baseball worked out a deal to put Nextel's name on the batons as well as the towels, Alvarado said. PepsiCo Inc. will sponsor the noisemakers for Game 2.

The Angels plan to have the batons at each home game but haven't said who will fill the order if there is a Game 6 or a Game 7 in the best-of-seven series. Each maker says it's negotiating for the order.

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