NEW YORK — Some prominent female and male athletes will drop their uniforms for ESPN The Magazine's first "Body Issue," slated to hit newsstands Oct. 19, editor in chief Gary Belsky says.
The magazine is approaching pro, amateur and Olympic athletes about posing au naturel, albeit artfully covered or positioned. Their response has been enthusiastic, he says, though he declines to identify who has been approached. He adds the question is whether he can pull off the risqué issue without coming off as a "laddie" magazine. Or offending ESPN's corporate masters at The Walt Disney Co.

"We're toying with the idea of making it a no-clothes issue," Belsky says from his office in Manhattan. But first, he says, he and his staff will have to figure out how to "use equipment and pads and bats and goalposts and soccer nets and pucks and helmets to obscure body parts that we still can't quite go to in a magazine that's part of a company owned by (Disney)."
As part of the issue, the magazine is asking athletes to help rank the "Best Bodies" in sports. "If you ask athletes who has the best bodies in basketball, they'll have opinions," Belsky says. Besides sports' hottest bodies, the issue will explore the past, present and future of the athletic form. And the outer limits of how it can be "bent and pulled, tortured and broken, inflated and improved and made to excel," Belsky says.
One male "very big star" is even allowing photographers into the operating room during his surgery, Belsky says. "The things they do to their bodies for our spectating pleasure is extraordinary," he says. "Part of this issue is an homage to that. Look what they do to themselves for you — the readers and fans."
One model for what Belsky describes as an "all-nude, tastefully done" approach is the Jan. 19, 2004, issue, which included photos of Winter X Games athletes in the buff. The issue showed snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler sitting on the edge of a hot tub (but with her arms and legs strategically crossed), snowboarder Marc Frank Montoya as an unclothed room-service waiter (with a platter covering his private parts) and Aleisha Cline skiing in nothing but her hat, gloves and boots.
If successful, the "Body Issue," could challenge Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue for readers, buzz and ad bucks. In any case, it is likely to raise the stakes in the battle between ESPN's 11-year-old bi-weekly and SI, the weekly that celebrates its 55th birthday in August.
SI is still the clear No. 1 with a total per-issue print circulation of 3.2 million vs. 2.1 million for ESPN The Magazine, according to Kammi Altig of the Audit Bureau of Circulations. But ESPN has gained ground, she says, picking up an additional circulation of 200,000 over the past five years.
While SI spokesman Scott Novak declined to comment on ESPN plans, he noted the 36-year swimsuit franchise is one of the most successful in publishing history. The annual February issue generates roughly 8-9% of SI's magazine revenue, Novak says, and reaches 66 million adults.
Many magazines have tried, and failed, to take on SI's iconic swimsuit issue, magazine consultant Samir Husni says.
"It's a ritual that people are addicted to. Every year, (SI) ups the ante a little to feed the addiction" says Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi. "Everybody has tried to copy it. But they're just ink on paper. The swimsuit issue is an event."
Belsky fully expects the "Body Issue" to generate complaints from some subscribers. The magazine won't do anything that would compromise ESPN and Disney brands, he says.
"Disney would have a problem if I turned it into a 1970s porn magazine for that issue," he says. "But we're not doing that at all. This is going to be about sports. And sports is about bodies."
He downplays the notion of the "Body Issue" as a competitor to the swimsuit issue: "In terms of the relevance to sports fans, it won't be a comparison. We'll be completely relevant to sports fans. They're relevant to swimsuit fans. And body-painting fans."