Photo: Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated released its annual Swimsuit Issue today, kicking off the highly-anticipated event with the unveiling of the cover (landed by 19-year-old American model Kate Upton) last night on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” And while many giddily await the special glossy’s arrival on newsstands for its endless stream of bikini-clad models posing on sun-drenched landscapes, for Time Inc., the publication’s parent company, the Swimsuit Issue means something more: a multi-million business that’s bigger than the sports magazine that spawned it.
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.
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.
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.
In 2005, the swimsuit issue brought in an estimated $35 million in ad sales; Today It generates 7% of Sports Illustrated's annual revenue, according to SI editor Terry McDonnell.
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.
Regular Sports Illustrated has more than 3 million subscribers and is read by about 23 million people a week.
The swimsuit issue traditionally sells more than 1 million copies on newstands (about 10 to 15X as much as regular SI). Last year, consumers forked over $6.99 to get their hands on the popular glossy.
In 1983, SI rolled out its first swimsuit calendar. 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.
The 1989 Swimsuit Edition, which celebrated the publication's 25th Anniversary and featured Kathy Ireland, is the best-selling issue of all time.
In February 2011, Sport Illustrated also began selling its first ever digital subscriptions, available on Google Android, which launched in tandem with the paper magazine.
This year, the Swimsuit Issue will be offered on four digital platforms, including a tablet edition and iPhone app with 360-views of bodypainted athletes. The magazine's release is also accompanied by a two-day music festival in Las Vegas, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Beauties & Beats, showcasing emerging indie bands that are featured in the 2012 Swimsuit Issue.
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