World wide Webb takes off

It was another glaring example of the ever-evolving chasm between old media and new.

The nationally televised college football National Championship title game between Alabama and Notre Dame was an obvious ratings winner for ESPN in early January.

In the commentator’s box was the voice of college sports, Brent Musburger, adorable and curmudgeonly in equal measures but increasingly prone to gaffes and eccentricity.

In the stands stood an anxious graduate of Alabama’s hated rivals Auburn, who also happened to be a devoted girlfriend of the Crimson Tide’s star quarterback, AJ McCarron. The ESPN director’s orders were to focus the camera on the impossibly good looking former Miss Alabama during as many of the breaks in play as possible.

Musburger was like a lamb to slaughter and his on-air reaction to this vision was one for the ages, advocating every young Alabaman to work on their quarterbacking skills so they too could get a woman like Katherine Webb when they were older.

Where better these days than to test the waters of an exponential rise to stardom than on social media? Webb’s Twitter account skyrocketed from just over 2,000 to almost 200,000.

With the sudden glare of the national spotlight arrived the obligatory offer to do a photoshoot for the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue which was released to the usual fanfare this past Tuesday.

She’s not the cover star but one of the featured names that will appeal to the sports fan subscriber, posing in the Crimson No 10 jersey which her boyfriend wore on the way to his second national title.

It had been rumoured that she would adorn the front page but Kate Upton retained the prime spot she first achieved last year.

Obviously, this is all crucial. Endorsements and advertising as well as sales of the magazine itself ensure all parties win. Indeed Webb reached out to Musburger this week, grateful for how her opportunities have really kicked into gear.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done and for helping my career and helping me make a new life for myself,” she said in a video statement directed at the old man. “I was in Los Angeles and I was already modelling before, so all of this stuff that I’m doing is no strange thing to me. I was actually having a hard time booking jobs… After all this happened, people started calling.”

Sports Illustrated’s annual spike in sales is important at a tricky time for the magazine industry. About 1m extra copies are grabbed off the shelves as opposed to the average weekly figure of 100,000.

Over three million people subscribe to Sports Illustrated, a weekly magazine which is controlled by the troubled Time Inc, itself a black sheep subsidiary of Time Warner, one of the largest media and entertainment conglomerates in the world.

Their subscribers are loyal making for a relatively healthy state of affairs but advertising is the key component in the overall contraction. The importance of the annual swimsuit edition is rendered all the starker by the fact that it accounts for more than 7% of total revenue.

According to Forbes, since it moved to being a stand-alone issue in 1997, the swimsuit issue has become “one of Time Inc’s biggest revenue drivers over the years, bringing in more than $1 billion”.

With Time Inc’s earnings dropping 5% last year and therefore struggling to contribute 12% of overall sales to the company that swallowed it up, the enduring vitality of the swimsuit issue and its uncanny ability to be almost universally acceptable in these more politically correct times is becoming increasingly important.

Subscribers receive the swimsuit issue for free but can opt to tack on an extra regular issue at the end of the year rather than have the bikinis and ads clog up their mailbox. And yes, fear not, this week’s main issue also arrived, a particularly memorable tribute to Michael Jordan on the occasion of his 50th birthday.

It was the legendary six-time NBA champion’s 50th Sports Illustrated cover, the still coveted honour which athletes and models alike dream about. And even more appropriately it was one more cover than all of those models combined — next year will be the 50th anniversary of the swimsuit issue. Typical Jordan, always enjoying an edge.

It’s that striving for an edge which defines this year’s swimsuit issue too, boasting about photoshoots on every continent and availability across all those digital platforms.

A concept alien to the Brent Musburgers of this world but not to the Katherine Webbs and all those newly earned legions of Twitter followers.

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