Sports Illustrated Builds on Buzz
Magazine Turns Promotions for Its Swimsuit Edition Into Moneymakers
By SHIRA OVIDE
As the ad recession takes the oomph out of the publishing industry, Sports Illustrated is betting it can turn its iconic swimsuit edition into a souped-up marketing machine.
The magazine, which plans to unveil the 46th edition of the franchise Monday on the "Late Show with David Letterman," always tries to create a lot of buzz for the issue, which typically comes out in February and features some of the world's top models.
This year, however, Sports Illustrated, which is owned by Time Warner, has turned its promotional efforts themselves into moneymakers, generating about $3 million in revenue, say people familiar with the matter.
Among the deals struck by the magazine, PepsiCo's SoBe drink brand is sponsoring YouTube videos of the women featured in the issue frolicking on the Canary Islands and in Naples, Italy.
In addition, a Southwest Airlines jet emblazoned with an image of swimsuit model Bar Refaeli will whisk VIPs to a launch party in Las Vegas this week. And, as part of a days-long Vegas celebration, stunt drivers sponsored by Nissan Motor will race cars on a lot adjacent to the Luxor hotel, with swimsuit models as their passengers.
Sports Illustrated's grab for such nontraditional marketing dollars has helped diversify its annual haul from the swimsuit edition. This year, about 40% of revenue generated by the issue -- which accounts for about a tenth of the magazine's total annual revenue -- will come from digital and event-marketing efforts. Four years ago, just 4% of the issue's revenue came from sources other than print advertising, executives say.
To develop its strategy for the issue, Sports Illustrated worked with Team Velocity, a sports-marketing and events firm based in Norwalk, Conn. "It's really about taking this content we've created in the magazine and leveraging it through new channels," says Mark Ford, the magazine's president.
The promotions have helped Sports Illustrated offset a drop in print-advertising revenue. This year's swimsuit issue has 70 pages of ads, a third fewer than last year's.
The special issue was inaugurated in 1964 by Sports Illustrated editor André Laguerre to serve as a winter escape from what had been a dead zone for sports fans -- the interval between the end of football season and the start of baseball season. Its newsstand sales total about 1.1 million copies each year, though sales have declined from around 1.5 million copies earlier this decade. That compares with the magazine's normal weekly newsstand sales of about 85,000 copies.
Sports Illustrated may have a challenge keeping sales up this year. Amid a fee dispute with magazine distributors, publisher Time Inc. recently started working with new middlemen to truck copies to retail outlets like Wal-Mart Stores. Time Inc. has acknowledged there may be some bare magazine racks for a few weeks, which could jeopardize swimsuit-issue sales. But Sports Illustrated says it has taken steps to work around any distribution problem.
Sports Illustrated is just one media property attempting to extend its marketing beyond the traditional ad page or 30-second TV spot. "Experiential marketing," a broad term for efforts to give consumers hands-on experience with products or services, is a growth industry as marketers seek out more ways to draw the attention of the increasingly distracted consumer.
"Brands these days have really got to be creative about how they're getting their messaging out in the marketplace," says Linda Rutherford, vice president for communications and strategic outreach at Southwest Airlines.
To piggyback on the unveiling of this year's swimsuit issue, the Southwest plane with the image of Ms. Refaeli will be unveiled this week at New York's LaGuardia Airport and will ferry about 100 people, including two dozen models, to Las Vegas. After that, the airline plans to use the Boeing 737, dubbed SI One, on regular routes for the next two months.
Las Vegas is spending more than $1 million with Sports Illustrated to feature swimsuit models in events this week, culminating Friday in a 1,000-person launch party and concert by R&B star John Legend at the LAX nightclub. Attendees can line up to have their photos taken against a fake backdrop of the Las Vegas skyline with one of the two dozen swimsuit models in attendance.
"We are the city of great special events. It's just a place where things can happen, and this fits right in," says Rob Dondero, executive vice president of R&R Partners, which is working with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.
Online, Sports Illustrated plans to post more than 1,500 pictures from its swimsuit photo shoots, an effort that generated more than half a billion page views for last year's swimsuit edition. SoBe's lizard mascot will be featured in YouTube video ads starting Tuesday morning, in a video showing him inspecting candidates for this year's swimsuit cover page.
Even in a bad economy and with sexy images ubiquitous online, the readership of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue has demonstrated staying power. The edition has about 66 million readers, including 4 in 10 adult men in the U.S., according to Sports Illustrated research.
Write to Shira Ovide at email@example.com
For the tl; dr crowd:
SI COVERGIRL WILL BE REVEALED ON LETTERMAN TONIGHT
& IT MIGHT NOT GET SOLD AT WAL-MART BECAUSE OF SOME PUBLISHER FEES
and here's a fun LOL from si.com: Oh Leo, I ♥ you.
And the cover will be revealed on tonight's Late Show with David Letterman. Apparently, Leonardo DiCaprio is interested to see who's on the cover. The New York Post reports that Leo wants Bar Refaeli on the cover so his ex, Gisele Bundchen, will get jealous. Wouldn't you think just dating Bar Refaeli would make a man happy enough?