NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
In the beginning there was just the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
It wasn't even a whole issue of the weekly sports magazine. Just a cover photo of model Babette March, and six pages in the Jan. 20, 1964 issue. That was less than the eight pages given to the memoirs of boxing manager Jack "Doc" Kearns.
The swimsuits were meant to help keep SI readers, mostly men, interested between the end of the football season and baseball's spring training, and the basketball and hockey playoffs, in the spring.
But today, the swimsuit issue has become a winter sporting event in its own right, what the magazine refers to as the Super Bowl of print.
In fact advertisers in the swimsuit issue will pay $35 million this year, or roughly what was paid for a quarter of Super Bowl advertising. An estimated one U.S. adult in five will read, or at least look at, the issue.
But beyond the success and reach of the issue, it has also become the foundation of a multi-million dollar cottage industry, reaching well beyond the ordinary paper and ink edition that hit newsstands Tuesday.
Sports Illustrated Publisher Dave Morris said the secondary products together are worth about $10 million in revenue in their own right. And not surprisingly, all are profitable as well.
The other products, the calendars, DVDs, and television shows, have become a way for the magazine to build on its swimsuit franchise without risking over-exposure by putting out more than one issue a year. The $10 million in incremental revenue is more than SI sees in ad revenue for a typical issue. And Morris said there are likely to be more swimsuit-related products in the future.
"There's lots of small and large opportunities. I don't think we're fully tapped it out," said Morris. "We are talking to video game companies about sports-content games. So far we haven't talked to video game companies yet about the swimsuit franchise, but I imagine it'll probably come up."
Even some critics who aren't fans of the issue concede the profits and growth show no signs of slowing.
"I don't know when enough is enough, but they'll push it as far as they can push it," said Columbia University journalism professor Sandy Padwe, a former senior editor at SI. "When they start to see a downside, they'll pull back, but they'll never stop selling sex."
Padwe said even with the growth of men's magazines in recent years, the SI swimsuit issue is a franchise that no one else has been able to match. As a result there are few true competitive threats.
"They do it so well," he said. "Others have tried to replicate it, but they're the masters at it. They nailed it down early and they exploited it in the true sense of the word to the n-th degree."
As successful as the issue is, ad sales represent only about 4 percent of SI's total ad revenue of $726 million last year. And of course SI is only a small part of Time Warner (Research), the world's largest media conglomerate, which includes CNN/Money.
But the money that comes in for the swimsuit issue and the other products is all extra money that SI would be unlikely to capture without the issue, according to Padwe.
Calendar first spin-off
The grandmother of the spin-off products was the swimsuit calendar, which helped customers keep track of time starting in 1983. That was followed by a video of the making the swimsuit issue, which debuted six year later.
In 1997 Sports Illustrated started devoting a separate edition to swimsuits, putting out two issues during swimsuit week (the NBA mid-season report is the other issue this week).
A year ago the magazine started selling screen savers for cell phones of the models for $2 each.
This year there was a reality television show on NBC that concluded Feb. 9 with 5.3 million people watching Alicia Hall win the swimsuit model search. In addition to that show, Spike TV rolls out its "SI 2005 Swimsuit Special," Wednesday evening.
SportsIllustrated.com rolled out its own swimsuit package Tuesday morning; its traffic more than doubled on the first day of swimsuit photos were posted. And while some of the photos are available to any Web surfer, some are available only to SI or America Online subscribers, helping to add to both subscriber bases.
"What we love is when we can sell people a multi-media package," said Morris. He said in order for advertisers to buy spots on the NBC show, they also had to buy pages in the swimsuit issue. The advertisers also got placement of their products during the shows.
This year Sports Illustrated is also offering a downloadable version of the swimsuit, with photos and ads, including links that let readers get more information about the photo shoots. It sells for the same $5.99 as the newsstand price for the magazine itself.
The magazine has trading cards of the swimsuit models included inside, with nine of the 18 cards available in each issue.
What's due next year? Morris won't say.
He noted the magazine has yet to explore actually selling swimsuits, though he wouldn't rule out such an arrangement with a retailer.
"Certainly that's something we can think about," he said. "I don't know if the revenues would add up to be significant. But when I talked to some swimsuit manufacturers, they tell me to have their suit on cover or in issue is huge, that it guarantees a sell-out for that product."