Athletes to benefit as International Swimming League threatens Fina’s hold over sport

  • Competition, funded by Ukrainian billionaire, offers athletes $7m in fees and prize money, plus share of revenues  
  • A number of leading swimmers, such as Ledecky, Coughlin and Peaty, have signed up to take part in first season 
  • World governing body Fina is looking to fend off its new rival with launch of $4m Champions Swim Series  

The International Swimming League, a new team-based competition for elite swimmers debuting this October, is a bold new venture aimed at revitalizing a sport that is largely untapped commercially outside of the Olympics and annual major championships.

Founded by Ukrainian billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin, the ISL will initially comprise of eight mixed-gender teams – four each from the United States and Europe – who will compete against each other in a series of meetings across the two continents.

The inaugural regular season begins on October 4-5 and continues almost every weekend this fall through November 23-24. The host cities are Naples, Budapest and London in Europe, and Indianapolis, Dallas and Washington, DC, in the United States. Each individual swim meet is scheduled to last around two hours and be broadcast in prime-time in its respective region.

The finals, meanwhile, will be held at a custom-built pool at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on December 20-21.

This week, the initial 192 participants were confirmed. Many of the world’s leading swimmers have signed up to take part, highlighted by American five-time Olympic champion Katie Ledecky, the most-decorated female swimmer ever. Other Olympic and world championship medallists and world-record holders who are also participating include Ryan Murphy, Adam Peaty, Natalie Coughlin, Cody Miller, Cate Campbell and Lilly King.

They will compete in teams – comprised of 12 men and 12 women – in a series of fast-paced, short-track races that will determine the regular-season table, with the top four squads qualifying for the Las Vegas finals. The US teams are the New York Breakers, Los Angeles Current, DC Trident, and Cali Condors (San Francisco), while the European teams are Aqua Centurions (Naples), Energy Standard (Paris), London Roar, and Team Iron (Budapest).

Outside of a select few members of the world’s elite – such as Americans Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte – many professional swimmers make well below what athletes of a similar standard in other sports can earn. As such, those participating in the ISL have been lured by the prospect of improving their profiles and gaining significant financial rewards in the short- and long-term.

Each athlete will sign a contract with their individual team and another with the ISL as a whole, creating two sources of income. Between $6-7m has been set aside in the first season for appearance fees and prize money, as well as bonuses for coaches. The leading swimmer on the winning team could earn around $120,000 a year, according to Grigorishin, while having the freedom to earn prize money from other competitions and secure individual sponsorship deals.

For now, swimmers are signing one-year contracts, with the league organizers conceding it will take time to seek long-term commitments for a start-up series.

Will it work? So far no broadcast or sponsorship deals have been announced but ISL organizers are cautiously optimistic about the series’ chances of success. And it is hoped that the ISL will raise the global profile of swimming which is expected, in turn, to provide new revenue opportunities in the sport. And at least in the US, the recent record-setting exploits of Ledecky and Phelps have made swimming some of the most popular programming each Summer Olympics.

Hubert Montcoudiol, ISL’s head of commercial operations, tells SportBusiness that despite swimming’s continued popularity, particularly during the Olympics, “it’s not yet a sport that is economically successful. There’s no business around swimming or swimmers. We want to spotlight the sport like basketball, soccer and so on.

“We need to make swimming an economically successful sport. And we’re confident there are the economics behind this to make the sport successful. We’re building out a brand new format. It’s unique. It’s revolutionary,” he says.

ISL founder Konstantin Grigorishin (right) with the league’s chief executive Ali Khan (Credit: Getty Images)

Gap in the market to exploit

Grigorishin is the leading shareholder in the Energy Standard Group, a Ukraine-based engineering and utility conglomerate, and is worth more than $1bn, according to Forbes. The 53-year-old swimming enthusiast was inspired to revive the sport after attending the World Championships in Barcelona in 2013 for Fina, the international governing body for water sports, and was dismayed by the rows and rows of empty seats.

“It should be one of the most popular events in the world and nobody understands or knows this, just specialists and relatives of swimmers,” Grigorishin told the Washington Post in January. “Boring ceremony, format, bureaucrats giving speeches. I started to wonder, ‘how is it possible to change this?’ Swimmers have the same level of talent like NBA players or soccer players, sometimes even more. But a swimmer who has talent like LeBron James receives 1,000 times less money. We have to fix this.”

Grigorishin believes there is a gap in the market to exploit. During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, 32.7 million US viewers tuned in to NBC to watch Phelps’s final performance outing in an Olympic competition, as he helped Team USA take the gold in the men’s 100 metre relay. The network’s coverage of the US Olympic swimming trials earlier that summer, meanwhile, averaged 4.9 million viewers.

Elsewhere, the number of year-round members participating in a swimming club in the US rose from 221,352 in 2000 to 354,627 in 2017, according to USA Swimming statistics.

The ISL is being primarily financed by Grigorishin. According to Olympics-focused website Inside the Games, he has set aside a budget of $20m for the league’s first season. Of this, $6-7m has been set aside for the athletes, $4m on TV production, $3-4m on travel and accommodation for participants, $2m for pool rental, $1m on staging costs, and $1-2m on miscellaneous items, including staffing the eight teams and the league’s ambassador programme.

Teams will earn revenue through ticket and merchandise sales as well as local sponsorships, while the ISL is seeking global media rights and commercial partnerships, in addition to funding from investors.

Notably, 50 per cent of league-wide revenues will be distributed to the athletes and the teams. By contrast, Fina’s accounts have shown that the sport’s governing body distributes just 12.5 per cent of its annual revenues to athletes in the form of prize money.

US-based sports marketing and talent management agency Wasserman is advising the ISL on “global strategy’, but thus far no meaningful commercial deals have been finalized.

Montcoudiol says: “At this stage, we cannot comment on this part. We’ve just selected the production teams and now we’re in conversation with partners. ISL will be live prime time for the US and Europe. [We are] finalizing the conversations now – especially how do we manage airtime.”

He adds: “We’re in the middle of sorting out what the corporate structure and everything will be but there will be bases in each continent. We’re in start-up mode…so we’re taking the time to have to do it correctly.”

Adam Peaty, shown here competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics, will be among the most prominent male swimmers to participate in the International Swimming League.

Challenge of creating a new team sport

One of the main challenges for the ISL will be to build and develop fanbases for the teams, not least because the athletes will not train or be physically based in their franchise locations. But ISL organizers believe that a team-based competition is necessary to succeed.

“Until now swimming was just a sport for individuals and the national team. What was missing at the table was the third leg, a club competition,” Andrea di Nino, the ISL managing director, tells us. “As we know, the majority of successful sports are club-orientated: basketball, American football, soccer, volleyball…Very few sports have great success as individual [sports] – maybe golf and tennis but they have team sports in the Ryder Cup and the Davis Cup.

“Fans will come because it is a different kind of swimming. Teams bring passion. It doesn’t matter if your team has a star or not – though it helps if you have a star – but fans will support the team because of team spirit: it is your city, your colours or whatever it is.”

That the official ISL Twitter account only has around 2,800 followers indicates just how much work there is to do. However, there are already tentative plans to expand the number of teams and host cities next season, including possibly to Asia following the Tokyo Olympics next year. The long-term goal is to have 80 matches a year, according to Montcoudiol.

“We need to create a new sport,” Di Nino adds. “When we are presenting ISL, unfortunately many people say, ‘Oh, this is swimming, this is boring’. And I don’t think swimming is boring at all but if you watch the preliminary competitions during the Olympic Games, it’s hard to say it’s not boring sometimes.

“We need to present a new sport and this will for sure take time – we need to be good in communication, good in marketing, to have the right partners and to make people understand that this is swimming in another way. This is not just one shot. This is something we are looking to have for [at least] the next 10 years, to learn from our mistakes and make it better and better,” Di Nino says.

Fight with Fina

By far the biggest hurdle that the ISL has faced thus far has been a battle with the international swimming federation Fina, and it is one that shows no sign of ending soon.

Last December, the ISL was forced to scrap plans for a test event in Turin, that was being held in partnership with the Italian Swimming Federation, after the world governing body threatened competitors with bans from the sport’s biggest competitions, such as the World Championships and Olympics, after ruling that the meeting was “non-approved.”

In response, three swimmers – Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu and Americans Tom Shields and Michael Andrew – filed an antitrust lawsuit in the US District Court for the Northern District of California, challenging Fina’s authority to organize competitions in the sport. ISL organizers also filed a separate and simultaneous suit against Fina for anti-competitive conduct.

A month later, following a members’ conference held in Switzerland, Fina changed its stance on the matter and lifted the threat of sanctions against athletes wishing to participate in unaffiliated events. Di Nino said, at the time, the decision was a “capitulation” and a “step in the right direction.”

But the battle wasn’t over. Fina also responded by creating the Champions Swim Series, its own team-based event aimed at Olympic and World medalists which pays over $3.9m in prize money and appearance fees. Races were held in Guangzhou, China, on April 27-28; Budapest on May 11-12; and Indianapolis on May 31-June 1.

China and Hungary provided governmental financial support for the first two stops of the series, while USA Swimming offered technical support for the Indianapolis event, according to Swimming World. The Champions Swim Series was also well received by the swimmers, and there already have been discussions with Fina about how best to continue it in 2020 and 2021. The athletes, though, are particularly keen to establish a set schedule that clusters the series closer together with fewer time zone changes.

“Now they prove they have a monopoly and that they threaten and destroy competition because they’ve copy-and-pasted our format,” Grigorishin told the Washington Post.

Only time will tell if the ISL and Champions Swim Series can co-exist. The ultimate winners, though, may be the swimmers themselves, who have long called for a greater financial share from the revenues that the sport generates.

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