STEVE Ehrhart, commissioner of the new World Basketball League (WBL), is riding the crest of basketball's swelling international popularity. The United States ``whipped the champions of the Soviet Union, Italy and Australia,'' says Mr. Ehrhart, whose Memphis-based league is in its third season. ``Fans love it.''
Along with his players, Mr. Ehrhart is doing his own share of hustling and fast-breaking these days in rounding up corporate sponsors, who put their logos and commercial messages on team jerseys and arena floors.
At one recent game against a Soviet team, the Memphis Rockers sported the Fuji Film name on their jerseys. Other companies, such as Coca-Cola Company, Levi Strauss & Company, and Philips Lighting Company are involved in sponsorship packages with the WBL as a means to market their products worldwide.
The medium of special events marketing is expanding, not only geographically but also into more activities - from arm wrestling to charities.
By most industry reckonings, more than 3,500 companies are spending annually from $2 billion to $3 billion on sponsorships and support activities. Growth has averaged 30 to 40 percent for most of the past decade.
In professional team sports, and to a growing degree in music and art sponsorships, the trend is global, driven by increased opportunities from television abroad and the thrust toward an economically united Europe.
``No question about it. The globalization of communications will be followed very shortly by the globalization of marketing programs. The timing is perfect,'' says Bud Stanner, senior vice-president of Cleveland-based International Management Group, a sports marketing agency.
Already, the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain is attracting scores of corporate sponsors, many of them multinationals like Japan's Fujitsu Ltd. They are expected to pump an estimated $7.9 billion into the Spanish economy.
Foreign companies, in fact, are becoming adept at sponsoring special events. In Europe, the Spanish food giant Nupextra and the greeting card company Pannini have signed sponsorship deals with the National Basketball Association. Toshiba is a sponsor of the Tour de France bicycle race.
In the US, sports, along with music and art sponsorships, remain the most popular choices of event sponsors. Companies donated nearly $635 million to the arts in 1988, compared to $22 million 1967, according to the Business Committee for the Arts.
But some firms are shifting to other, more innovative ways to bring out audiences and attract media. They are exploring tie-ins with schools, charities, and other community service organizations.
Nickelodeon, the children's television network, last year co-sponsored a 10th anniversary benefit with the Children's Museum of Manhattan at New York's South Street Seaport Pier 17 Atrium.
SOME companies are turning to grass-roots local and regional events as a way to touch people more directly by doing something that relates to their lives - as well as to better and more directly measure the effectiveness and impact of event dollars. Sports like beach volleyball, arm wrestling, rock climbing, ping pong, and billiards - which have become popular regionally - have gained cachet with sponsors.
Free Style Watches, of Canoga Park, Calif., is using tie-ins with the US Triathlon series to introduce its newest watch, the ``Competitor,'' in different markets across the country.
Cities, following the lead of Chicago, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis, are staging international sports events. Aside from tourism dollars, ``cities stand to make a great deal more money out of television rights and licensing revenues, which do not have any negative impact on taxpayers and are a true boon to cities,'' says Monica de Hellerman, president of International Sport Summit, a New York conference firm specializing in sports events.
Demographics point to the future influence of Hispanic groups on events markets, since Hispanics are projected to become the largest minority in the country by century's end. The Spanish population's spendable income in the US is a whopping $200 billion - a fact not lost on Procter & Gamble, which has been running a series of events with Spanish market tie-ins.