By whacking two flat poles made of flexible polyethylene foam, baseball fans during this post-season have discovered noise-deafening nirvana.
The long, balloonlike cylinders are the creation of two fiercely competitive rivals, both with similarly christened, trademarked items. In one corner stands bag maker Vonco Products Inc. of Lake Villa, Ill., a three-generation family business that fabricates ThunderStix noisemakers.
Its opponent, landing some late blows, is CheerStix, founded by a Washington-state native who moved to China and opened a plant in Beijing.
Both ThunderStix and CheerStix have become nighttime staples on national television. They have created a decibel-defying racket lately during the Anaheim Angels' run to the American League pennant, as more than 40,000 fans a night have whomped the inflatable plastic sticks and waved rally monkeys to spur their team to victory.
Opposing managers have complained about the din, suggesting an unfair advantage for the home team. One West Coast athletic association, the Pacific-10 Conference, even has banned the use of CheerStix for football games next season, claiming sportsmanship issues.
The debate only fuels sales for the noisemaker manufacturers, both of which have seen profound spikes in demand for the inflatable novelties.
``Everybody is trying to figure out ways to enliven attendance,'' said Doug Ihmels, the Bakersfield, Calif.-based director of U.S. marketing for CheerStix. ``Attendance has declined across the board for sporting events in every sport. This is something to generate more fun at events and a more memorable experience.''
A memorable experience, and an Angels win in the World Series, could land the noise pads a larger audience. CheerStix supplied the product for the first two Series games, played in Anaheim, Calif., on Oct. 19-20, Ihmels said. The company is negotiating to get the sticks on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in the event of an Angels championship.
Vonco gave away ThunderStix at an earlier post-season Angels game and has sold its whipping sticks to several other baseball teams, including most of those in the playoffs. Teams typically use sponsors to buy the sticks and give them away free during games for synchronized banging.
The two companies selling the noisemakers sometimes take whacks at each other, too. They have similar origins. CheerStix founder Jim Lundberg learned of the idea while teaching English in South Korea and attending sporting events there, according to Ihmels.
A South Korea company made earlier versions of the sticks, and Lundberg soon become a distributor. But five years ago Lundberg decided to open his own factory in China and coordinate sales with customers over the Internet. Besides Lundberg and the workers in Beijing, Ihmels is the only other CheerStix employee.
Vonco, a 90-employee maker of promotional items, also got the idea about four years ago from the same, now-defunct South Korea company, said Les Laske, Vonco vice president of sales and a member of the family that founded the firm in 1955.
Vonco's ThunderStix are made with a patented, one-way valve system that allows a fan to inflate the sticks by mouth, Laske said. That avoids any patent-infringement issues with CheerStix, whose products are packaged with a straw that attaches to the valve.
Vonco also designs and builds its own machinery and tooling to make the promotional items. The foam piece is made on retrofitted bag-making equipment and is shipped flat to stadiums.
Its promotional products, sold through distributors, also include a foam hand with an outstretched index finger that signifies a team's No. 1 position, and specially shaped plastic axes, horseshoes (for the Indianapolis Colts football team) and puppets.
The recent baseball success is one of three waves of popularity for Vonco's ThunderStix. The first was their use at soccer's World Cup in 1998 and then at the Republican National Convention in 2000.
``You heard Colin Powell speak, and saw a whole audience of red, white and blue ThunderStix,'' Laske said. ``Every time there was a long pause, they'd film the audience going crazy and beating their ThunderStix. We got publicity in spades.''
Now the company is working on new shapes and applications for the blended PE product. And Vonco is expanding its plant to meet higher customer demands, adding 15,000 square feet to its current, 36,000-square-foot site, Laske said.
The project, expected to be completed early next year, will allow Vonco to add two printing presses, including its first eight-color press, and expand warehouse space, Laske said.
Vonco's main business is not novelties but more serious items. It specializes in bags for medical, retail and industrial applications. It is developing updated medical-specimen transport bags that will comply with new government shipping regulations, Laske said.
The company almost dropped its promotional line six years ago before deciding to hire an executive, Jim Porto, to spearhead growth, Laske said. While growth has been in peaks and valleys, the new boom in ThunderStix at baseball games has given the company its largest publicity spurt, he said.
``It's a nice complementary product to our current capacity,'' Laske said. ``But I wouldn't quit my day job and start a business on it. It's an exciting, fun market but it's not that large in volume.''
Lundberg at CheerStix did what Laske advised against. The globe-trotting executive left teaching to focus solely on making CheerStix, originally called Logo Bangers, and selling them directly to customers.
Laske said CheerStix is a Chinese company that should not be taken seriously in the United States. And CheerStix makes no bones about its difference on its Web site, stating in bold letters that ``we are CheerStix ... not ThunderStix'' above a photo of a jubilant Angels player.
``Actually, it's a very big market and there's room for two companies,'' Ihmels said. ``We're positioned very well. We've been able to get better turnaround and cheaper prices working [from China].''
CheerStix also trumpets the fact that it has replaced ThunderStix at more recent Angels playoff games, while Laske said that Angels management merely wanted to spread the wealth among two companies.
CheerStix was given five days to deliver 90,000 noisemakers to Edison Field in Anaheim for a weekend playoff series in mid-October with the Minnesota Twins. The firm shipped product so quickly that it was handed the first two World Series games, Ihmels said.
Another 100,000 noisemakers were available for those games.
The company also sold 80,000 of the rubbery clappers for the Red River Shootout, a recent football clash between the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas, Ihmels said. And both the University of Notre Dame and the Arena Football League are taking a look at adding CheerStix, he said.
The plastic sticks might not be a fad, Laske said. ``It's something people are evaluating using at events,'' he said. ``We're selling more to company meetings and motivational sessions and rallies.''
Ihmels was more humble.
``It could be like the Hula-Hoop and become a staple,'' he said. ``Or it may not be around at all and go the opposite way. Obviously we'd like to see the former happen.''