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Sports Illustrated models cash in on new tech

The launch of Sports Illustrated's latest "Swimsuit edition" seems to get bigger every year. But the much-anticipated expanded cover art is just one aspect of the magazine's highly visual, technology-centric new strategy, the publisher said.

"This year, we doubled down on video, we doubled down on experiential, we doubled down on technology," Brendan Ripp, publisher of Sports Illustrated, told CNBC's "Squawk Alley" Tuesday.

But just because there's expanded content online doesn't mean the print edition doesn't garner buzz, Ripp said.

"This year, everyone is talking about the three covers of the magazine," Ripp said. "So we are a brand in transition, we are a company in transition, but print continues to be an important part of the franchise and really has directed the national dialogue."

The Time Inc. publication announced over the holiday weekend it would have three separate cover models for its hallmark swimsuit issue for the first time ever. The goal was to showcase models whose beauty is not "cookie cutter," Sports Illustrated's assistant managing editor, MJ Day, said in the magazine's announcement.

"Beauty is all around us and that became especially obvious to me while shooting and editing this year's issue," Day told Sports Illustrated.

One cover model, Ashley Graham, has already made history for the publication before—as the first plus-size model to appear in an ad in the swimsuit edition.

Graham told CNBC that she wants her cover—and the money she's making from it—to be a message to women consumers.

"I want women who have been reading it to know that no matter what size you are, no matter how thick your thighs are, how much cellulite you have, it doesn't matter," Graham said. "Because a woman like me, who was told I would never be on the cover of magazines like Sports Illustrated actually made it on the cover. And you are worth it."

The new format, including virtual reality and more hours of online video than ever, could provide the exposure needed to launch new business ventures, said another of the cover models, Hailey Clauson.

"Our career is going to explode off of this," Clauson said.