Kate Upton with the 2017 SI Swimsuit Issue on Jimmy Kimmel Live.

Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Edition is taking a new step; partnering with an apparel company for a line of bathing suits and activewear, and unveiling them with runway shows at industry event SWIMMIAMI this week, where those from an open casting call will wear these suits Saturday. This came to light thanks to a note in a column from Keith J. Kelly of The New York Post Wednesday, but it was discussed in a Time Inc. release from last week. Here are more details from that release:

For the first time ever, Time Inc.’s (NYSE: TIME) Sports Illustrated Swimsuit will host a series of runway shows and activations at SWIMMIAMI during Miami Swim Week—the swimwear industry’s premiere annual showcase. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s takeover of the industry’s top gathering will begin as it presents SWIMMIAMI’s opening party on July 20, featuring a celebration of the iconic brand’s impact on the swimwear industry and the body positive movement. The event will include a runway show put on by the group of 15 final contestants from Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s first open casting call competition, wearing suits that appeared on the cover of the iconic Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue over the years. On July 22, these models will debut the all-new line of Sports Illustrated Swim and Active apparel at a special runway show during SWIMMIAMI’s prime-time slot at 8:00 p.m.

…The Sports Illustrated Swim and Active collections are curated for every kind of woman, showcasing designs that are delicately feminine, effortlessly trendy, laid-back beachy, and everything in between. There is a style for every mood, a silhouette for every body and a size for every woman. The 2018 Sports Illustrated Swim collection has 72 styles and uses fine Italian fabrics, an array of textures and hardware detail. The Sports Illustrated Active collection has 44 pieces, and the styles range from sports bras to leggings and hoodies. The collection will be available to the trade at the RAJ Swim booth during Swim Show on July 22–24 at the Miami Convention Center.

…The exclusive new Sports Illustrated Swim and Active collections will be made available for purchase by consumers in early 2018, coinciding with the launch of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. Select items will be featured in the iconic issue and on Sports Illustrated’s digital properties, including an e-commerce integration on SI.com, allowing consumers to seamlessly purchase their favorite pieces online.

At first glance, this sounds silly, especially when you consider it in light of SI potentially being reduced to as few as 24 issues in 2018 (for what it’s worth, Kelly’s sources say “the total annual output would be closer to 30 issues”). Emphasizing swimsuits over sports content would seem like a bad call, and one likely to alienate readers. But Swimsuit (Kate Upton is seen above promoting the 2017 issue on Jimmy Kimmel Live) is already so different from regular SI, and from a business standpoint, partnering with a clothing company may make a lot of sense for it.

If SI is going to show off women in swimsuits in an issue anyway, why not team up with a company to make and sell some of those swimsuits to the general public, and why not use their Swimsuit edition space (and their online Swim Daily section) to promote something that they can make money from? Yes, that might spark “well, actually, it’s about ethics in the Swimsuit Issue” complaints about them promoting things they have a stake in, but caring about the editorial integrity of the Swimsuit Issue feels like a pointless cause.

This is also perhaps interesting in the larger context of SI, and Time Inc. titles overall, trying to develop revenue streams beyond just publishing magazines. SI has been doing that for a long time in a variety of fields, including publishing books and providing freebie clothing and bags to new subscribers. And they’ve really boosted their focus on selling championship merchandise recently, including commemorative DVDs, shirts, SI issues, special coffeetable books, and so on. But other Time Inc. titles do this too (see all the infomercials for TimeLife CD and DVD collections), and it sometimes makes some sense.

Making money off a print magazine in 2017 is quite difficult, but SI (and other Time Inc. titles) still have significant brand recognition, and there are opportunities out there for them; SI group editorial director Chris Stone spoke to AA about that last summer, talking about investing in “non-core assets” (including digital), and saying that “Relying exclusively on the core, and the magazine here in that sense, is not a sustainable business model.”  It’s hard to disagree. And if that leads to SI: The Championship DVD, SI: The Bathing Suit, and perhaps even SI: The Flamethrower, there may be some value to those if they bring in money that lets SI cover sports. Heck, that’s the argument for the Swimsuit Issue itself.

At some level, though, if you wind up taking a ton of partnerships, you wind up diluting the value of your brand. And it’s worth mentioning that there’s already a lot of criticism of SI’s association with the Swimsuit Issue, and that much of that criticism makes good points. Phil Barber had a thoughtful column in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat on that subject recently, exploring how ESPN The Magazine‘s Body Issue feels much more sports-appropriate and sports-related than SI’s Swimsuit Issue:

“For 52 weeks a year, SI does a pretty good job of bringing attention to female athletes.

The swimsuit issue serves as a sad counterpoint, reminding us that many of the magazine’s subscribers still see women primarily as a collection of tanned and oiled body parts. The name of the publication gives the old creepers cover.

…I’m no great fan of ESPN and its crushing corporate tentacles, but since 2009 the brand has gotten this right.

The body issue has featured athletes as diverse as Colin Kaepernick, Hope Solo, Manny Pacquiao, Ronda Rousey, yachter Jimmy Spithill and roller derby skater Suzy Hotrod — all captured artfully in little more than the clothes they were born with.

The most obvious difference between the two publications is the mingling of men and women in the body issue. Part of what bugs me about the Swimsuit Issue is that it seems to ignore the idea that some of Sports Illustrated’s readers might be women, or gay men.”

Barber’s whole column is worth a read, and it illustrates some of the problems with SI still being so big on promoting their Swimsuit Issue. It’s also notable that this isn’t all external criticism; former SI managing editor Terry McDonell told Richard Deitsch last year that an early-2000s poll found one-third of SI staffers expressing strong opposition to the Swimsuit Issue. And that’s a potential peril with another partnership on the Swimsuit side, one that deepens SI’s association with that brand still further. But if SI can make some money off of selling swimsuits, and if they can use that to hire talented sports journalists and avoid further layoffs, there may be merit to that too. We’ll see how this all pans out for them.

[The New York Post]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.