THE humble basketball, the rubber pumpkin of the sporting goods industry, is keeping a lot of colorful company these days.
The variety of looks can be striking, creating a degree of option overload for unsuspecting consumers. The lower-end products, aimed at the preteen dribblers, come in a rainbow of color combinations, plus black balls with bold graphics, and others that simulate the look of asphalt or denim and carry names like Hard Court and All World.
The All World, designed by teenagers, is part of the Street Series manufactured by Wilson Sporting Goods Company of Chicago. Wilson has also introduced the Night Flight, a phosphorescent, glow-in-the-dark ball.
``Once you've opened your eyes to the type of things we've opened our eyes to in the last five or six years, nothing is sacred,'' says Jack Lacey, a vice president with Spalding Sports Worldwide of Chicopee, Mass.
The brave new world of basketball marketing, Mr. Lacey says, is driven by the sport's phenomenal international growth. ``We don't have definitive numbers,'' he says, ``but if basketball participation didn't rise by 33 percent in the last eight years I would be very surprised. And I'm talking about every country in the world, including Japan, which was zero as a market eight years ago.''
According to the National Sporting Goods Association, domestic retail sales within the United States jumped roughly 12 percent in 1992, with 4.3 million balls sold. That is $73 million in business. This does not include the thriving business done with high school and college clients.
Most of the lower-priced balls are manufactured in China or Thailand. But in the national birthplace of basketball, creative genius is applied by the marketing and R&D departments of the five major American manufacturers - Wilson, Spalding, Rawlings, Voit, and Franklin.
Jeff Zucchi of Franklin Sports Industries in Stoughton, Mass., says the seeds of the color revolution were actually planted by the now-defunct American Basketball Association, which used a red, white, and blue ball during the 1970s. He views Michael Jordan and his black and red Air Jordan sneakers as a second triggering agent in the liberation of old-school product thinking. Mr. Zucchi also says that Jordan helped ``congeal'' the National Basketball Association's (NBA) burgeoning popularity, partly because of a fortuitous geographic coincidence that placed him with the Chicago Bulls, midway between flagship franchises and superstars on the coasts - Larry Bird in Boston and Magic Johnson in Los Angeles. ``With Jordan, Bird, and Magic retired, the league's strength has gone into [competitive] parity, which forces us to a new generation of product innovation,'' he says.
``The big thing coming in terms of color,'' Mr. Zucchi says, ``are earth tones - forest greens, dark purple, mustard yellow. We as manufacturers have to find a way to make a mustard yellow, generally an ugly color, fit into something on a basketball.''
Franklin, which targets the 5-to-14-year-old market, has found that its best-selling basketball, the David Robinson Intimidator, uses only a dash of electric blue to jazz up what is otherwise a fairly conventional looking, inexpensive ($9.99) rubber ball. The result is a product that has dual appeal, as an official-looking ball that also provides ``a little color blast,'' according to Zucchi.
Of course the David Robinson signature carries weight with some consumers. Robinson, a former Navy man, plays center for pro basketball's San Antonio Spurs. The biggest name of the moment, however, belongs to Shaquille O'Neal, the Orlando Magic star who is the focus of the most aggressive sales and marketing campaign in Spalding's 100-year basketball history.
Spalding executive Jack Lacey says the sale of basketballs autographed by O'Neal are well ahead of those endorsed by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson at a similar point in their careers.
Lacey says the industry receives mixed signals about the importance of endorsers. ``If you ask focus groups how much difference endorsers make in the consideration of purchase, everybody answers, `None,' '' Lacey says. ``But they must be influencing somebody because we're selling a lot of autographed basketballs.''
Youngsters and their parents seem to like the cachet a big-name endorser provides, but marketing studies show that at about age 14, youngsters gravitate toward basketballs that look like the leather models used in interscholastic, intercollegiate, and professional leagues. These typically are unautographed.
The world's bestselling ball - Spalding's NBA Indoor/Outdoor - fits this category. The company sells about 1.5 million a year, Lacey says. A synthetic product made of polyurethane, it carries a mid-range price (usually $20 to $25), which is less than half that of many leather basketballs.
Since their introduction in about 1980, synthetic balls have been a boon to business. They have the look and feel of leather but can be used outdoors as well as indoors. Spalding not long ago came out with a composite basketball, which combines natural fibers - wool and cotton - with synthetics.