Cover story: How the Swimsuit Issue became Sports Illustrated’s cash cow

Published next week, the swimsuit issue is a media event. We slap on the factor 50 and flick through the back issues to learn how it became SI’s saviour.

THE ANNUAL Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue comes out next week and while it is a convenient excuse for sports sites (like this one) to publish photos of girls in bikinis, this story doesn’t have anything to do with sports or sports journalism or even magazine publishing.

(Unless it’s about the death of magazine publishing.)

The story today is how the Swimsuit Issue has turned into its own business and tech empire that, on its own, rivals the magazine that gave birth to it.

The women of the SI SI have taken over TV and the web today, with talk show appearances by models, back-to-back nights on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” a Twitter hashtag, and a multimedia blitz to rival any Apple product launch.

The special magazine also has Android and iPad apps that have become part of a lucrative distribution model (and really the best way to view all the photos).

In fact, with the announcement last year that Sports Illustrated Regular will begin selling digital subscriptions in tandem with the paper magazine, it seems clear that the success of electronic swimwear led the way.

Cover story: How the Swimsuit Issue became Sports Illustrated’s cash cow
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  • Si1

    The first Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition debuted on Jan 20, 1964, as a five-page supplement. It was designed by then-editor, Andre Laguerre to increase readership during the winter lull between popular sports seasons. The premier cover featured Babette March in a white two-piece.
  • SI2

    Fashion reporter Jule Campbell was chosen as SI's first swimsuit editor. During her 31-year reign from 1965 to 1996, Campbell transformed the publication from a provocative glossy featuring a few bikini-clad women into a commercial behemoth.
  • SI3

    In 1997, SI's swimsuit edition received special-issue status. It has since become the single best-selling issue in Time Inc.'s magazine franchise.
  • SI4

    In 2005, the swimsuit issue brought in an estimated $35 million in ad sales; Today It generates 7 percent of Sports Illustrated's annual revenue, according to SI editor Terry McDonnell
  • SI5

    The swimsuit issue isn't just a boon to advertisers — bikini and jewelry designers whose items are featured in the special issue also experience a major boost in sales.
  • SI6

    Regular Sports Illustrated has more than three million subscribers and is read by about 23 million people a week.
  • SI7

    The swimsuit issue traditionally sells more than 1 million copies on newstands. This year, the magazine sells for $6.99 per copy.
  • SI8

    In 1983, SI rolled out its first swimsuit calender. This was followed by a television documentary of Sports Illustrated's 25th Anniversary Swimsuit Issue. Over the next two decades, a compilation of videos, TV specials, trading cards, cell phone screen savers, and other secondary products have contributed to an additional $10 million in revenue.
  • SI9

    This year, Sports Illustrated and Sony released a half-hour "Swimsuit in 3-D" video, exclusively for PlayStation 3 owners available through the PlayStation store.
  • SI10

    In February 2011, Sport Illustrated also began selling its first-ever digital subscription apps, available on Google Android, which coincided with the release of its swimsuit issue.
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