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Sports Illustrated makes splash on Web

The magazine will debut part of its "swimsuit issue" online today, before posting a broader package later this week.

Sports Illustrated will debut part of its "swimsuit issue" on the Web today, before posting a broader multimedia package later this week.

CNNSI.com, the Time Warner magazine's Web home, will unveil 1999's cover shot this evening. Tomorrow, an extensive photo gallery will be posted on the site, and Thursday video clips taken from a Turner Network Television program on the swimsuit edition's production will be offered.

Meanwhile, Yahoo will host online chats with some of the models tonight and later this week.

The move isn't a first for CNN/SI Interactive or predecessor SI Online, which has posted the cover shot and selected photos from its well-known and sometimes controversial feature for the last three years. Last year the swimsuit edition was available for $7.95, but in 1999, the entire feature will be free. The goal is to drive traffic to the Web site, according to CNN/SI Interactive general manager Hart Hooton.

"Last year was a test. We wanted to see if we could generate the same excitement as the magazine," Hooton said. "It was moderately successful, but people don't want to pay for content online when there's an enormous amount of similar content also available for free--you can get supermodels and Victoria's Secret for free."

The shift also demonstrates the popularity this type of content enjoys online. Last week, a Webcast of a Victoria's Secret lingerie show drew the largest audience ever for an event broadcast exclusively on the Internet, according to host Broadcast.com.

An amalgamation of cable news channel CNN and SI, one of the country's leading sports publications, CNN/SI is the third most popular sports site, according to December 1998 Media Metrix figures.

Most of its content focuses on American professional and Division I college athletics, providing news coverage and commentary from well-known journalists. CNN/SI also has worked to broaden coverage of leading foreign sports. Unlike front-running ESPN.com, all of its content is free--although not everything that is published in the magazine is posted online.

SI's normal weekly circulation is 3.15 million, according to the magazine, while circulation for the swimsuit edition is 4.5 million. Regular readership is 23 million, a figure that will jump to 58 million this week. Five million women regularly read SI, a spokesman said, while 19 million women pick up the swimsuit edition, boosting the ratio of female-male readership by 9 percent.

The swimsuit edition has been published since 1964.

"We're using it on the Web much the way the magazine treats it--it's really become its own separate franchise," Hooton said. "For us it's a separate Web site. Our 24-hour sports news isn't changing.

"We expect to see a tremendous spike in usage," he added. "Female readership quadruples [for the print edition]. Whether that analogy follows to the Web isn't clear."