Equipment makers face off Lacrosse: Flying shots include lawsuits and lucrative sponsorships in hot off-field competition.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Forget Johns Hopkins and Maryland, Princeton and Virginia, Gilman and St. Paul's.

The most intense rivalry in lacrosse these days may well be between those who make the sport's equipment, not those who play the game.

The rivalry pits Baltimore-based STX, an acknowledged stick-making pioneer, against longtime nemesis Brine and 1990s newcomer Warrior, while two upstart companies try to enter the field.

It can be seen in ways that range from a pending federal lawsuit to previously unheard-of team sponsorships to glitzed-up marketing campaigns for souped-up products -- raising concerns among some that the game is being distorted by commercialization and technology.

"The competition for lacrosse market share has never been more intense," said Steven B. Stenersen, executive director of USLacrosse,the sport's national governing body.

Behindthe battle is the steady expansion of a sport that a generation ago was seldom played beyond Maryland and small pockets of the East and Northeast.

Today, the sport has a presence in nearly every state. In the past decade, the number of participants has grown by two-thirds to 250,000, lacrosse officials say.

Exposure has outstripped participation, fueling hopes that the sport is yet to peak.

In 1971, when the first collegiate championships were held, the last two rounds drew a total of 5,458 fans. Last year's Division I championships attracted 55,897 spectators -- and a national television audience on ESPN2.

Others say the competition is so intense because lacrosse, for all its growth, remains a small sport. Golf, by contrast, counts 100 players for every one in lacrosse.

"The sport's growing, but the perception is it's getting a lot bigger than it actually is," said Jim Darcangelo, president of the Lax World retail chain.

Family feud

Whatever the reason, there's more at stake than bragging rights in a burgeoning sport.

Last year, STX filed suit against Brine and Warrior, accusing them of infringing on its patented design for a new kind of plastic stick head.

Though none of the companies will comment on the charges, scheduled for trial in October in U.S. District Court here, court papers speak volumes of how important the battle is.

"STX's well-earned reputation as the lacrosse head innovator has never been more at risk than it is today," STX said in its filings.

Responded Brine: "Through this litigation, STX wants to wipe out Brine -- something it has been unable to do in the marketplace."

Warrior dodges most of the direct broadsides but fires a few salvos at its established competitors.

"They thought they were the only game in town," said David Morrow, Warrior's president. "We're going to take this conservative, WASP-y sport and break it open."

For all the sharp exchanges, the companies have a common thread as private, family-owned firms.

Brine began in 1922 and first moved into lacrosse as a marketer of wooden sticks. STX got its start in 1970, an offshoot of the W. T. Burnett Co. in Southwest Baltimore, a plastics maker. Warrior traces its history to 1992, when Morrow, who played at Princeton, went into business with his father, who owned a company that made tubes.

Of the three, STX is by far the most storied. It is part of lacrosse lore how Richard Tucker, Burnett's chairman, and company employees William Crawford and Joseph Sollers used the company's experience with plastic to invent synthetic sticks and founded STX to make them.

Until then, sticks were hand-crafted from wood, the way Native Americans who originated lacrosse centuries ago made them.

The invention is credited with making the game faster and more inventive.

For years, STX, with annual sales estimated at $2.6 million, comfortably dominated the market for sticks; Brine, estimated to do $20 million a year, most of it in soccer balls, was best known for its gloves and pads.

In recent years, that careful order has been shaken, as STX began pushing its own line of protective equipment and Brine began promoting its sticks more heavily.

Warrior entered the market, as did New York-based deBeer and New Jersey-based Shamrock.

Products became flashier, materials more exotic, marketing more sophisticated. For the first time, STX and Brine began exclusive arrangements with the top college teams.

Then STX sued Brine and Warrior, claiming they infringed on the company's 1996 patent for a new plastic head, known as an open sidewall model, said to have better aerodynamics.

Both Brine and Warrior deny the claim.

Morrow claims that Warrior was the catalyst for the change. "We lit a spark under everybody," he said.

Like Tucker, Sollers and Crawford -- who were lacrosse players for Gilman and Boys' Latin, Hopkins and Virginia, respectively -- Morrow was a devotee looking to improve the game through better equipment. He was a defenseman at Princeton by way of suburban Detroit -- what he calls "a direct result of the growth of lacrosse."

With the longer sticks used by defensemen coupled with aggressive play, he was bending several handles a season. His father suggested a stick made of titanium.

A prototype was ready by the spring of 1992; the first stick was sold the following February.

All-American showdown

It didn't hurt the fledging company that Morrow was named the 1993 college player of the year. It also didn't hurt that he snared the sponsorship of the 1998 World Championships at Homewood Field in July for a mind-boggling $100,000-plus, and launched an in-your-face advertising campaign.

"STX changed their entire corporate image because of us," he said. "If they don't admit we had an influence, they're crazy."

At STX's headquarters in Carroll Industrial Park, Dale Kohler, the company's general manager, admits nothing of the sort.

Kohler, himself a lacrosse All-American at Hopkins in the early 1970s, says STX recently made its corporate logo and its advertising more dramatic -- not because of Warrior but because of changes in the marketplace.

While lacrosse is a ritual in Maryland, says Kohler, to those being introduced to the sport, "It's a borderline extreme sport, like ice hockey."

"We needed to get that edge in product look," he said.

STX also sought an edge by courting leading universities for exclusive arrangements to use its lacrosse equipment.

"Our competition was livid," said Kohler of the initiative.

Brine President William McLean, who joined the Milford, Mass., company three years ago from Louisville Slugger, says the sport isn't big enough to justify such arrangements. He'd prefer that companies compete with products and service.

"It's gotten crazy today," he said, adding, "For us, it's a part of the business. We're going to make the most of the situation."

One school that went with STX was Hopkins. The school signed a three-year agreement last fall that calls for the company to provide customized gloves and pads but lets the players choose their own sticks. Officials value the deal at about $10,000 a year.

"For anyone to come in and say, 'We'd like to help you,' means a lot to us," said Hopkins coach Tony Seaman.

One school that went with Brine was Virginia, which has a two-year contract that includes equipment and calls for the school to "encourage" but not require its players to use Brine sticks.

Brine uses Virginia players in its advertising, which helps keep the program "in the public eye," says coach Dominic Starsia.

"For us, it's positive. Overall, that's for someone else to decide," he said.

Starsia, a member of lacrosse's college executive committee, is more concerned with the proliferation of sticks -- a result of the manufacturers' competition.

"I can hardly tell one stick from another anymore," he said. "There are so many new designs, shapes and colors. The kids want to have the latest and the greatest. But how does it impact the sport?"

Some of the most newfangled products are changing the game by making it harder to dislodge the ball from the pouched head, giving offensive players an advantage and encouraging more vicious body blocks by defenders trying to stop them.

Starsia said his committee needs to review "what a legal stick should be."

"Companies are going crazy in terms of creating things kids want to buy," he said. "But we need to strike a balance."

Pub Date: 4/11/98

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