THE EXCITING FUTURE OF PROFESSIONAL SWIMMING
Updated: Jan 30
This article was originally published on November 20th, 2019.
Despite being among the most-watched television sports at the Olympics, with millions of viewers. However, swimming as a sport has been left behind in the age of professionalism.
In a bid to revolutionize the sport, Ukrainian billionaire, Konstantin Grigorishin decided to launch a professional league, the International Swimming League (ISL). 2019 saw the league's inaugural season kick off this year, outside of swimming's governing body FINA's purview.
“Swimming is maybe the best sport. It’s the most popular Olympic sport, hundreds of millions of people are watching swimming during the Olympic Games. At the same time, it’s a very poor sport,” Grigorishin said. “What’s wrong with swimming? It was a challenge for myself.”
The fledgling pro league, whose top promises were to pay swimmers better and provide true zero tolerance for drug cheats, was a hit with athletes. A host of swimming's top names dived in, including U.S. superstars Katie Ledecky (@katieledecky) and Caeleb Dressel (@caelebdressel), France's Florent Manaudou (@FlorentManaudou), Hungarian Katinka Hosszu (@HosszuKatinka), and Italian Federica Pellegrini (@mafaldina88).
Before the league's inaugural season has even finished Grigorishin has already committed to expanding the league following next summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games, despite financial struggles in its first year.
The concept of an organized racing circuit for elite swimmers, outside of the Olympics and other annual global and regional championships, has existed for years in fantasy.
However, the current concept, the ISL, which is the brainchild of Konstantin Grigorishin, has finally made the long imagined fantasy into reality.
Grigorishin, who is worth more than $1 billion, is acting as the league's financier providing the fledgling league with $25 million to cover the launch-year budget.
The goal for the ISL, change the paradigm of swimming and create a team-based swimming league that provides swimmers a real opportunity to make a living from the sport based on appearance fees, marketing, and prize money.
“Even if we get 10 percent of the Olympic swimming audience, it’s a huge number, more than enough,” Grigorishin said.
Initially, the ISL came up against strong opposition from FINA, including threats to ban athletes who participate in non-approved circuits. The governing body would finally relent, later choosing to counter-attack with their own competition series, the FINA Champions Swim Series.
Grigorishin admired the team-based style of the NCAA championships and how swimmers strive to contribute to their team’s cause rather than worry about times, and fans of swimming love following the drama of college swimming. But that all exist in a limited sphere, far from the Olympic-level following the ISL is hoping to attain for its meets.
Therefore, the ISL was designed to appeal to fans in the ways that FINA competitions have not. All events were developed to emphasize short, exciting race and meet formats. The results from ISL races, which will be staged in sprint, relay and skin formats, will not be recognized by FINA.
Racing is spread over a two-hour session in a 25-meter pool featuring four swimmers per final. Athletes compete in the usual Olympic distances. However, coaches can bring in reserves or make other lineup changes during two 10-minute breaks. Anyone swimming slower than listed times in an event can lose their team points.
In the ISL athletes join one of the eight franchises, comprising four from the US and four from Europe, including the UK, Italy, and Hungary. Each team represents a major city and is split between twelve men and twelve women, who will compete for points across seven meets held on either side of the Atlantic.
Grigorishin admired the team-based style of the NCAA championships and how swimmers strive to contribute to their team’s cause rather than worry about times, and fans of swimming love following the drama of college swimming.
“We have some of the hardest-working athletes in the world, and they deserve more than they have gotten,” said Lenny Krayzelburg, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and the general manager of the ISL’s Los Angeles Current. “This is going to put the sport of swimming on the forefront, not just in the Olympic year but every year.”
Commercial director Hubert Montcoudiol (@HMontcoudiol) said another aim is to take the meets away from traditional aquatic centers, using temporary pools to stage showcase events at venues such as the Velodrome in Marseille.
Most important, Montocoudiol said, is to establish the league not as a "luxury exhibition" but as bona fide competition of the world's best.
The initial beneficiaries of the ISL are the athletes.
As the league supports twelve male and twelve female swimmers for each of the eight franchises, a total of 192 swimmers can now call themselves professional. That is more swimmers than the total that swam in individual Olympic finals in 2016.
Lilly King (@_king_lil), of the Cali Condors, identified a major selling point for athletes joining the ISL. "Obviously, we want to see more money,'' King said.
''You have some of the all-time greats in this room who aren't even making the starting salary of a Double-A MLB player. It's cool to see the money is going up for the people who deserve it.''
“These are professional athletes that really have never been treated like professionals,” said Cali Condors general manager Jason Lezak (@JasonLezak). “Although some of them have sponsors or make a little money to get by, some of them also have jobs. This will hopefully continue to grow into something where this is all they’re going to do and they’re going to focus on this like the other big sports.”
The large team rosters offers room for a new breed of professional swimmers, opening the door for athletes coming off accomplished college careers. While also allowing some athletes to work real-world jobs, while training part-time and showing up to the events.
ISL will be distributing $5 million across its competing athletes.By comparison, at the 2019 World Championships, FINA allocated $2.730 million to swimmers.
The ISL money will be shared through commitment bonuses, and prize money for individual and team prize money.
At the finals, the winner of each race will pocket $6,000. The prize money is multiplied in the 50m freestyle "skins race," a knockout competition over three heats. Each swimmer on the team that tops the points standings will also earn $10,000.
"It will bring, if it works, a lot more money than before in this sport, and we can't deny the fact that we need it," Marseille coach Julien Jacquier told AFP. "And it's an ultra-motivating competition format: very short, team-based, show-oriented."
Swedish sprinter Sarah Sjostrom, who races for Energy Standard Paris, said the swimming had been left behind in the age of professionalism.
"I have sponsors, but many swimmers can't even pay their rent," she said "And I'm talking about Olympic swimmers, who have to rely on their parents. This is crazy."
''I see like a much longer career in my swimming, so that's very exciting,'' she added.
When building the ISL from the ground up, the league spent time focusing on how fans would perceive the new sport.
“If you are a fan of Michael Phelps, you can watch him only two minutes. That’s all,” Kachurovskyi said. “So you will not go with your family to the swimming pool for those two minutes. The other swimmers, they are not interesting to you. You are not fans of them.
“But if you have your team, you will not know until the last moment who is the winner. You will be engaged 45 minutes, one hour, two hours, and our format is two hours with a break for the show. That is the concept which should work, from our understanding.”
In their bid to build a larger audience beyond the swimming world, ISL has been redesigning the idea of a swimming competition by adding theatrics. Swimmer receive introductions delivered with a flair more comparable to WWE, and the athletes enter the pool deck together as teammates racing for points first, rather than individuals hoping to set a personal best time.
Between the swimmers own events they will alos be engaging with fans, leading the crowd through cheers and chants. While also taking photos, signing autographs and even tossing swim caps into the stands.
''If I was a little kid and I walked into a swim meet and saw a giant light show going on and only four swimmers I had to keep track of and a Jumbotron, I'd be like, 'That looks like the NBA, that looks like the NFL, that looks like professional sports,'' said Cali Condors’ Lilly King said.
“The show that gets put on, it makes you feel like you’re at a professional sporting event,” said Caeleb Dressel, “the light show, the DJ, the music, the crowd.”
The ISL only became official in January and announced the eight teams and schedule in June.
Therefore, the league has moved so quickly to get off the ground that there has been little time to garner sponsorships.
“We’re in the most tough financial stage. We’re investing the money,” Grigorishin said. “But how do you convince a sponsor to sponsor something that does not exist? Now we have a product.”
The ISL’s inaugural season has received sparse media coverage. There is little to no visible signage at events that feature sponsor logos. And league organizers say early ratings and television production left much to be desired.
However, the ISL founder said he has seen enough, strong ticket sales, impressive performances and an electric atmosphere around the pool deck, to know there is a place for a professional swimming league.
The first season of the ISL, sees eight teams of more than 20 swimmers each taking on each other on over six weekends until the end of November to set up a four-team final in Las Vegas on December 20-21.
Katie Ledecky called the ISL a turning point for the sport, and others, such as world record holders Lilly King and Adam Peaty, have said the league represents the future for swimming.
Despite this the only media coverage the league has received has come from swimming news outlets, with limited coverage on outside media.
The ISL announced a second season in 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics are done and swimmers can put more of their focus onto the ISL. By then the Olympic cycle wil have begun again, with 2024 less than four years away.
The brass behind the ISL see the league’s long-term position being part of a paradigm shift in the sport of swimming. Creating a world where the Olympics are no longer the most important swim meet in the world.
For the majority of the current elite swimmers, no professional swimming circuit is set to usurp the Olympics from its perch as the ultimate goal. Young swimmers currently grow up watching the Olympics, and they remember seeing their heroes in Rio and Beijing. In the best-case scenario for the ISL, it will take at least a few generations to make their league the be-all, end-all for the world’s best swimmers.
“Of course, it will not be tomorrow. It will take some time. It should be like basketball or football or soccer or tennis, where the Olympics is one of the competitions but it is not the competition,” Kachurovskyi said. “This generation is happy to start that process.”
The ISL is looking at sports such as ice hockey and basketball, Olympic sports where the competition is secondary to what goes on in the main pro leagues.
When the NHL refused to suspend its season for the 2018 Olympics, the top men’s hockey players in the world didn’t get to go to the Olympics.
For the ISL to succeed, the league will need a year-round fanbase comparable to swimming’s Olympic fanbase. That means real support behind each of the clubs in the U.S. and around the world, and that will take time.
For now, there’s an abundance of optimism surrounding the ISL of what it could become, the potential opportunities for swimmers, a steady stream of incomea and real drama in the sport.
Despite some optimisum the league has some experts who doubt the the commercial and fan demand for a pro league in a niche sport is sustainble.
“If you look at the hard-core swim audience, yeah, they’re going to tune in,” said Michael Lynch of 3 Emerald Marketing, Visa’s former sponsorship chief. “But how do you get everybody else, which is what the likes of the EPL and NFL and others have been able to do?”
Even assuming there is a market for swimming, all startups face challenges in the age of vast entertainment options and tightening corporate marketing budgets. “When something new comes along, boy, it had better be damn good, and it had better be compellingly different, if you’re going to get my attention if I’m a consumer and my budget if I’m a sponsor,” said veteran Olympic sports marketer Bob Heussner.
There is no reason why swimming can't be a sport which is popular during non-Olympic years. However, it is not going to happen overnight, with the expectation to take “3-5 years for the thing to turn from subsidy to business.”
Konstantin Grigorishin and the athletes are optimistic that the league has a future. It will just take time to get there.