Where Have the Swimsuits Gone in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue?

For decades, the successful Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue has consistently heated up newsstands. But the annual pictorial of gorgeous women flaunting their fab physiques has certainly gotten a lot hotter since the first edition – featuring Babette March in a somewhat demure two-piece – was published back in 1964.

The swimsuits have become progressively smaller — and, as seen on the latest Kate Upton cover unveiled this week, are barely there at all! We’ve gotten an eyeful of Cheryl Tiegs, Elle McPherson, Tyra Banks, and more in various string bikinis, body paint, fishnets, thongs, and other skimpy garments over the years.

So why has the swimsuit's presence in the issue diminished so much?

Sports Illustrated has not responded to a request for comment. However, Brooklyn Decker, the swimsuit edition's 2010 cover girl, tells omg! that it's the magazine's attempt to push the envelope.

"This is their 50th year, so after 50 years of doing it you have to think of creative ways to change up a suit," Decker explains. "I think there are all these different ways to make it new and exciting and to be a story."

[Related: What Does It Take to Be a Sports Illustrated Cover Girl?]

Another reason is simply that our culture has changed, says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

"I think Sports Illustrated definitely amplified cultural change that was going on anyway," notes Thomspon. "I mean – let's face it – anyone who's gone to a beach in the past generation [knows] swimsuits have gotten a lot smaller."

And much of the magazine industry started to become racier at the same time as the swimsuit edition, says market analyst John Harrington.

"In the late '70s and early '80s, the whole area of sexual explicitness in magazines, film, and all that sort of stuff exploded. Magazines like Penthouse and Playboy were selling three and four million copies an issue. Today, Penthouse is practically out of business; Playboy at retail sells a couple hundred thousand. During that time is when the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue became a franchise into itself. It was no longer just another issue of Sports Illustrated.... Distributors and retailers had their own identity for it and displays, and it became a whole event."

What started as a way to fill pages during downtime for most sports has become a huge hit. Now, the risqué mag is such a big deal that this year's cover leaked on the Internet days before it was to be officially unveiled on "Late Show With David Letterman." (This was the second consecutive cover for Upton, who like Cheryl Tiegs, Elle McPherson, Tyra Banks, and many models before her, gained serious cache when her first cover was released.)

Besides the hype, which the mag also gets thanks to those increasingly sexy covers, sales from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue make up an estimated 7 percent of SI's income.

"Today, a weekly edition of Sports Illustrated sells about 100,000 copies at retail," Harrington notes. "The swimsuit issue sells regularly over a million copies."

[Related: The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue: A $1 Billion Empire]

One reason it’s able to sell so many copies because – as provocative as the special edition has grown – is because it’s still seen as socially acceptable to buy it.

Stuart Elliott, advertising columnist for the New York Times, says that it's all about the swimsuit issue's parent magazine.

It's the edition's "roots in a magazine about sports, rather than in a magazine like Playboy, a magazine about sex, that gives Time Inc. license to make the swimsuit issue so sexy and sultry each year," Elliott says. "But clearly there are lines the editors don't want to cross; there are always many notices on the letters to the editor page in the issues leading up to the swimsuit issue notifying subscribers with more tender sensibilities that the issue is coming and if they don't want it, they can get an issue added to their subscription instead."

[Related: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue Shocker! Kate Upton Sheds Bikini Top]

Thompson, the pop culture expert, agrees.

"[With Playboy,] to buy that at a newsstand or get a subscription to that, you were making some sort of statement, but to buy Sports Illustrated, that wasn't the case. Then you slip in this swimsuit edition, and the women aren't naked. There are some pretty close ones, but they were different. This is not what you see in men's naked women magazines. They were generally shot from a little bit further away, they were almost always clothed. There was enough respectability that this wasn't something that if you found it in the house, you'd have to relegate to the fireplace. But at the same time, it was pretty obviously very sexy."

To say the least!

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