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Swimsuit Commission


Economics of Sports Illustrated's most popular issue laid bare.

The runaway popularity of Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue underscores a basic truth: Men will always be boys.

"The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is an annual reaffirmation of sexual economics," says Dr. John Hoover, a Minyanville professor and author of How To Live With An Idiot. "Males are socialized to desire 2% body fat, turnip-nosed, to-die-for beauties. However, men are also taught that unless you're a movie star, sports hero or powerful political figure, you must pay big bucks for access. Some of us get a whiff of Donald Trump's lifestyle while acquiring a beer gut at the Bada-Bing, but for those of us who live in the placid center of the bell curve and don't go to strip clubs, there's always the annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue."

This year's installment hit newsstands Tuesday. It features Marisa Miller on the cover and 19 models in exotic places like the Cayman Islands, the Virgin Islands and Maui inside.

About 69 million people are expected to dip into the print edition and an estimated 250 million will check out the sights online. This is big business, and publisher Time Warner racks up millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

The first swimsuit edition was published in 1964 as a way to fill the void between the end of football season and the return of baseball.

The bikini, introduced by designer Louis Reard at a Paris fashion show four days after Uncle Sam detonated an atomic bomb over Bikini Atoll in the Pacific in 1946, was considered further evidence of French depravity until Sports Illustrated plopped a girl in one on their cover 18 years later. Sad to say, the model looks like a sumo wrestler by today's anorexic-chic standards.

But on the upside (as they say on Wall Street), the 1964 cover changed swimwear forever and resulted in a tectonic shift in the modeling industry. Now, appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated brings ordinary models one step closer to induction into the multi-billion dollar sisterhood of supermodels.

The edition is more about dollars and cents and catering to male whims, but editors still go to unimaginative lengths to weave the sports thread. For example, athletes and their spouses began to pop up in the magazine in 1998, including hockey great Wayne Gretzky and his wife, former Playboy model Janet Jones. Top female athletes have also appeared inside, but not yet on the cover. Tennis great Steffi Graf was in the 1997 issue. Serena Williams and figure skater Ekaterina Gordeeva were featured in the 2003 edition. Anna Kournikova, the czarina of saucy swat, appeared in an inset on the cover of the 2004 40-year anniversary edition and had a photo layout inside.

Never mind that Taco Bell has teamed up with Sports Illustrated on an interactive Web site featuring one of the models or that the effort is simultaneously promoted on MTV and ESPN: Some hardcore feminists would argue that men who drool over S.I.'s annual titillation edition are lummoxes. And they'd be right.

But it's doubtful Time Warner executives are bothered by the social implications of their annual swimsuit orgy. The edition continues to be a mega-profitable brand extension notable, above all, for just how base its appeal is.
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