By Ciro Scotti
Amazingly, incredibly, unbelievably, divinely, the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated made it through the BusinessWeek mailroom and landed on my desk with a thud last week.
A thud because at more than 200 pages, it's jammed with pricey ads -- from Jim Beam and Giorgio Armani to Planters Peanuts and Harley-Davidson -- at a time when the magazine business is flat on its gluteus maximus. Besides bringing home the bacon for parent AOL Time Warner, those ads serve another purpose. Along with the unreadable, kitty-litter-liner copy, they give the panting reader a page or two to catch his breath between gapes at the next photo of an impossibly perfect supermodel in a thong you could thread through a needle.
The tired question for SI is: What do beach-blanket hotties have to do with sports? The tired answer from SI: A long time ago, during a slow time of year, the magazine dreamed up the idea of a swimsuit issue, and the rest is sheer history.
These days, the arrival of the swimsuit edition has become one more in a series of overhyped, overcovered annual events that provide fodder for mind-numbing television -- the dim-bulb local-news shows, the morning happy-talk goop, and the breathless evening entertainment "reports." It's not yet up there with the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the Grammys, or the Kentucky Derby, but the swimsuit edition is a comer. Definitely ahead of the landing of Beaujolais Nouveau (an event now thankfully in decline) and breathing down the neck of Groundhog Day.
It certainly has the goods to make the big time: photo ops and phony excitement. (This year's SI un-cover girl, Yamila Diaz-Rahi, even rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Feb. 25.) The operative word is phony. Because besides having nothing to do with sports, the swimsuit edition has nothing to do with swimsuits. What it's really all about, of course, is testosterone dreams -- and cash.
To be fair, this year's special issue is not quite as blatant as the 2001 model, which came with 3-D glasses that made some of the flawless lovelies jiggle on the page. Still, "swimsuits" fashioned from strategically placed bottle caps and cigar bands do seem to be a stretch.
But, hey, it's a tough world out there, and SI is a victim of its own success. The soft, clean porn of the swimsuit edition probably helped spawn one of the hottest categories in the mag biz -- sex, sports, and gizmo books like Maxim.
In early March, a new title called Controversy (The Stuff Guys Like) went national after racking up some regional success. Founded by former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Derrick "L.A." Frazier and former Colts linebacker Quentin Coryatt, Controversy promises in its press release to offer equal measures of sports and fitness; women and sex; fame, fashion, and entertainment; and money -- how to get it and what to do with it.
The cover of its rollout edition features Brooke Burke, hostess of E! TV's Wild On, in stiletto heels and more cleavage than the caves of al Qaeda. Controversy is even planning a swimsuit issue in the spring.
JETER IN A JOCK.
So how can SI compete? Stop being hypocritical. Admit that the lines between sports, sex, and entertainment have been erased. Concede that the day of the noble competitor is done. Stop the swimsuit tease and give in to a world that is all Hollywood and Hefner.
Instead of pricey models like Heidi Klum, who probably can't jump rope, pack the pages of the next swimsuit edition with next-to-naked athletes. How about Anna Kournikova modeling a new deodorant, Derek Jeter in a jock, and Picabo Street in a peekaboo nightie? That ought to really leap off the newsstand.
Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Beth Belton