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Why the Swimsuit Issue Matters Even More This Year

Time Inc. hopes its (sometimes) bikini-clad franchise can tie together its digital future

Sports Illustrated’s 2011 swimsuit issue — the sun-soaked, perennially-hyped, exhaustively-marketed magazine — was released on Tuesday. And for Time Inc., SI’s publisher, it’s perhaps the most important one yet.

The swimsuit issue has become a big business, having generated more than a billion dollars for the company since the franchise began in 1964.

And the 2011 swimsuit issue is already delivering. It boasts more than 90 ad pages, a 30 percent increase over last year. And the issue is up 41 percent in advertising revenue, SI says.

That’s a big deal, considering the swimsuit issue itself accounts for about 7 percent of Sports Illustrated’s annual ad revenue (or roughly $40 million of its $572 million in 2010).

At the newsstand, the magazine usually sells well over a million single copies, or about 10-15 times how many regular issues of SI are sold.

And as you might imagine, bikinis are a big traffic driver online. SI.com/swimsuit had 11 million unique visitors during its launch week in 2010, generating more than 280 million page views and 100 million-plus video plays.

But the 2011 swimsuit issue is, perhaps, more important than the 36 that have come before it. That’s because Time Inc. is looking past Brooklyn Decker’s swimsuit (as hard as that is to do) and into its digital future.

“This is a strategic directive across the company,” Sports Illustrated Group publisher Frank Wall told TheWrap on the eve of the swimsuit launch. “Ever year swimsuit gets bigger and bigger, but we wanted to make this franchise representative of the media company as a whole.”

On Friday, SI announced and launched an “all-access” initiative, in which readers are able to access content in print, online, on mobile phones and on tablets for one price — shifting the focus away from print-only subscriptions towards its digital offerings. (Read: no more print-only subscriptions.) Time Inc. is hoping the SI “all-access” model will soon be the one used by its other magazines, including Time and People.

“Everybody wants to migrate to the subscription model,” Wall said.

The importance of this year’s swimsuit issue to Time Inc. can be found in its bulging marketing budget, and ubiquitous media presence.

Dubbed “Swimsuit Launch Week Live,” SI has been gearing up for the latest swimsuit launch with a big digital push: Twitter feeds and Facebook pages; apps on the iPhone and, for the first time, iPad and Android; a Flipboard stream; a 3-D video on Sony’s PlayStation video network; and a “livestream” video on Facebook (sponsored by SoBe); and within the issue, SI has partnered with Microsoft on a 2D barcode that gives readers with smartphones the opportunity to snap a picture of one of three tags and “instantly receive exclusive videos and photos of 2011 SI Swimsuit models.”

More than 175 videos were shot during the issue’s production — and SI is divvying them up across SI.com and the various platforms. (It’s like Time Inc. chief Jeff Bewkes’ “TV Everywhere” initiative — only less clothing.)

Then, of course, there’s the traditional TV blitz: swimsuit models ringing the New York Stock Exchange “Closing Bell”; a “Swimsuit Selection Show” hosted by Dan Patrick on DirecTV’s Channel 101; and, as has been the custom the last few years, SI unveiled the coveted cover on Monday’s “Late Show With David Letterman” and have ten models read a special "Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition Top Ten List." (Last year, model/actress/tennis wife and “Just Go With It” star Brooklyn Decker graced the front.)

And that’s to say nothing about the blowout launch parties scheduled in New York and Las Vegas this week.

All of this adds up to what is by far the most ambitious production for a franchise that reached 60 million people — or one in three American adults — last year. That’s downright Super Bowl like. Wall said that nearly half of the marketers who buy ads in the issue, like the Super Bowl, create custom ads for the issue.

The swimsuit issue has also become a year-round franchise for Time Inc. and SI.  Wall noted that 10 percent of the million or so people that downloaded the free 2010 Swimsuit issue iPhone app upgraded to the $1.99 version, and were installing updates for more content throughout the year.

Three weeks after the launch, Wall said, they start working on next year’s issue.