Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition 2013: Kate Upton Makes Her Contribution to an American Tradition

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue making it an instant collector’s item. Kate Upton graces the cover for the second year in a row. Upton is only the ninth model to appear on the cover twice and the fifth model to appear in consecutive years. The 2013 issue should easily outperform Upton’s 2012 issue (one of the biggest selling issues of all time). In fact the combination of Upton on the cover and the 50th anniversary should help the issue outsell the best-selling 1989 25th anniversary issue with Kathy Ireland.

The SI swimsuit issue is a merger of sex, money and sports in the grand tradition of American consumerism. The multi-dimensional, always controversial issue is an American “sports” mainstay. It merges fashion and swimsuit modeling within a sports context. Fashion and beautiful women are as celebrated and revered in American sports culture as are the scores and the players. The swimsuit issue is pure eye candy for the male libido and that is as American as apple pie. Since 1997 the issue has been almost entirely devoted to swimsuit models. If you are interested in tremendous locations, outstanding photography, and beautiful women in skimpy bikinis then this is the perfect issue for you.

The swimsuit issue is a multi-million dollar business. The issue normally sells in excess of 1 million copies and represents 7% of SI’s yearly ad revenue. It is not only big business for Time, Inc. but it generates millions in revenue for advertisers, retailers, fashion designers, photographers, locations, and the models themselves. According to CNBC, it is the “most profitable single-issue magazine franchise in the world.” It is simply the Super Bowl of sports issues. Retailers associated with the issue are elevated to a new level and become some of the hottest brands in the industry. Keith Bielory, a social media and marketing consultant noted, “If a swimsuit makes it into the issue, it can elevate the brand tremendously and have a huge impact on sales.” The issue has become part of the American culture.

There is no question that the magazine is a marketing extravaganza that exploits the objectification of women. It is misogynistic to its core. But let’s face it, that is also an American tradition. The swimsuit issue sells because American sports fans like women in skimpy outfits. It is sexy, and sex sells. So does sports, so obviously putting them together creates a dynamic package. Think about cheerleaders. Are they really part of the team? Do we watch the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders because of their precision dance routines or infectious cheers? No, we watch them because they are beautiful and wear barely-there revealing costumes. By the same token we buy the swimsuit issue because the women are hot. Hot women around sports are an American sports tradition. In fact, hot women around sports in general are a worldwide tradition. Hooters is not the most popular sports bar because of its buffalo wings.

The swimsuit issue has become a small industry. CNBC reporter Brian A. Shactman describes it as an “annual rite of passage for the ‘sports’ fan.” There is the magazine itself, but there is also the website, the DVD, the wall calendar, and the annual “Making of” TV special. This year SI expanded the website with a new feature, Swim Daly “covering all things swimsuit.”

The swimsuit issue was created in 1964 as a way to stimulate sales during the slow winter months. This was before the NBA had become popular and well before the football season extended into February or the baseball season extended into November. This was before there was Twitter and ESPN to satisfy your sports appetite and extend your sport season.

Managing editor Andre Laguerre came up with the idea and Julie Campbell is credited with turning the issue into a media phenomenon. Campbell, a fashion reporter, began featuring “bigger and healthier” California models and identifying the women by name. This brought the models worldwide acclaim and the issue can arguably take credit for launching the supermodel era.

Sport Illustrated has capitalized on what Slate.com describes as “the growing nexus between sex and sports.”  According to Slate, “sports is irretrievably linked with sex — from cheerleaders to beer commercials.”

The SI swimsuit issue was instrumental in creating the link by showcasing beautiful women in exotic locations to the sports fan. Who can deny that beer, sports, and women are a great American sports tradition? SI is not the only magazine that has made the connection between sports and sex. (ESPN the Magazine for example has started an annual “Body Issue” using actual athletes), but SI still does it the best. As Jeff Merron of ESPN Page 2 put it” even a slow year is pretty interesting when it comes to our two favorite physical activities.” This must have been what SI was thinking when they created the grand tradition of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.

One of the grandest traditions in American pop culture is the announcement of the cover model for the swimsuit issue. It comes complete with a promotional guest appearance on the “The Late Show with David Letterman” on the night before the issue hits the newsstands. This year the Upton announcement was upstaged when the cover photo was leaked forcing SI to confirm the selection before the show could air. Of course this caused SI to launch an “investigation” into the leak. Glamor, glitz, sex, leaks, TV, etc. Just a few more examples of why the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition is a great American tradition.