Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue turns 50

BY Lauren Ehrler  January 20, 2014 at 3:40 PM EST

The original Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover girl Babette Beatty holds the Jan. 20, 1964, issue in which she was featured, in this January 2000 archive photo from the Associated Press.

For one month each year, Sports Illustrated magazine swaps basketballs for bikinis and athletes for supermodels in its popular Swimsuit edition. And with this year’s issue, set to hit newsstands in February, SI will celebrate a special anniversary: 50 years of turning heads.

Model Kate Upton poses next to her 2012 cover. Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

The SI Swimsuit Edition was first published in January 1964. In its infancy, the edition was only a five-page supplement that editor Andre Laguerre hoped would help boost readership in the winter months. Babette March was the first model to grace the cover, wearing a modest (by modern standards) white two-piece bathing suit. By 1997, the edition had become a stand-alone issue that has brought in more than $1 billion to date. (In 2012 alone, the issue reportedly generated more than $40 million.)

Over the years, the annual issue has collected an impressive list of well-known alumnae including Cheryl Tiegs, Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum and Christie Brinkley. The edition is a major money maker for Time Warner Inc., accounting for about 7 percent of SI’s annual revenue. And if the success of the Swimsuit Edition’s 25th anniversary issue is any indication of how this year’s will fare, the golden anniversary is in luck. Kathy Ireland’s 1989 cover is still the magazine’s best-selling issue of all time.

In anticipation for this year’s anniversary, parties have been planned, TV specials have been produced and some “far out” rumors involving past two-time cover model Kate Upton have already started stirring.