THE 'SPORTS ILLUSTRATED' BELLY BUTTON ISSUE

What Everyone Is Talking About Today

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) –- Every February since 1964, Sports Illustrated does its part to warm up its primarily male readership with its swimsuit issue, and given the past 41 years of covers, we’re betting this year’s cover model will, at the very least, be baring her belly.

By Watercooler’s count, 27 of the last 41 covers featured a tummy-baring model (that includes one tankini, which is almost a cheat, but still). Just 12 featured the more demure one-piece. (One, 1976, featured one of each.) And two, shockingly enough, actually had the models wearing a shirt over her bathing suit. A 1970 cover featuring Cheryl Tiegs pictures her wearing a long-sleeved black v-neck. But of course, that was long before the days when lad titles Maxim and FHM crashed the newsstand and on a monthly basis out-do SI on presenting ostensibly respectable skin. SI’s 1995 T-shirt clad model wore it over a bikini, so she fits into the belly buttons on display mode.

The newsstand competition definitely seems to have impacted how SI presents its cover models. For the past seven years, the cover models have worn bikinis, and for the past three years they’ve been increasingly provocative. In 2003, the bottoms are being untied. In 2004 and 2005, the models are slipping their tops off.

Then again, maybe it’s the Web that’s heated things up. What started as a feature in 1964 titled “A Skin Diver’s Guide to the Caribbean” has ballooned into a multimedia event that touts itself as the Super Bowl of Print for all the advertisers flocking to get their ads in next to hot babes in bikinis. The babes, after all, live well beyond the printed page.

This year for the first time eight videos of the photo shoots can be downloaded from iTunes, or to a cellphone, thanks to an agreement with American Greetings Interactive. SI.com also boasts a gallery of models that can be searched by name, or by type -- say athletes or those who have been body-painted or are underwater. Spike TV will air a one-hour special on the photo shoots for the issue, which comes out Feb. 15, and Anheuser-Busch has signed on to sponsor promotional events around the country. With all that exposure, why would cover models, or even those pictured inside, mind showing off a bit of skin? For them, it's some of the best marketing of their assets. Landing the SI swimsuit cover can launch a modeling career, or jump start a flagging one.

But just who is this year’s cover girl, let alone what she will or won’t be wearing, is a closely guarded secret until tonight. Tune in to Jay Leno, who will unveil the swimsuit cover on the “The Tonight Show.”

Update: The 2006 cover? Not one, but eight cover models, and all just wearing bikini bottoms.We predict 2007's cover will feature just body paint at this rate.

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