People in sport can often be prone to hyperbole and exaggeration. Such is the raw emotion and excitement that it brings, we can all get carried away. I’ve heard a lot of excitement surrounding the new International Swimming League (ISL), but in my view this is totally justified.
I have been part of this journey from the start. Last year, I joined two other professional swimmers (Katinka Hosszu and Tom Shields) as named plaintiffs in a class-action suit against the global governing body Fina. The reason? I believed the sport was being run in an anti-competitive way that was out of keeping with how athletes should be treated in modern-day sport. Our principle complaint was that Fina would not approve the ISL series of events. They threatened athletes would be banned from competing in the Olympics if they became involved with the ISL. We alleged that this would hurt athletes’ earning potential because it would lead to the cancellation of a series of events which promised the highest prize purse in the history of the sport.
When I joined the legal action against Fina, I fully understood the ramifications. The lawsuit might prevent me from being able to compete at Tokyo 2020, but I took the decision anyway because I believed the future of swimming was at stake. The case is ongoing but my belief in the ISL is undiminished.
The ISL promises to modernize and shake up swimming and make sure it engages with new fans every day of the year, not just at an Olympic Games every four years. The plan is to have up to 25 events annually with much higher prize money than the sums currently available to professional swimmers in most meets.
It won’t be hard for the ISL to do a better job than Fina. As it stands, many of Fina’s events are in far- flung locations and are poorly attended because the competition formats are unimaginative and boring. The Fina Championship Series is not commercially viable because it is not shown on television.
The ISL promises to create new formats for swimming events with team competitions and creative scoring and to invest real money to attract attendees, fill the stands and create a compelling product for broadcasters. Competition series will culminate in play-offs and finals, creating a year-long narrative that can be broadcast regularly around the world. This will in turn provide greater investment opportunities for sponsors. And the more athletes appear on TV, the more potential there is for them to become real household names and enjoy all the marketability that comes with that.
In a country like Australia, swimmers are huge stars with substantial endorsement deals but that’s not seen in other countries. I truly believe people love tuning in to watch swimming – they do so by the millions during the Olympic Games – and so it’s high time we see swimmers offered those commercial opportunities elsewhere.
I feel athletes are not given a voice within Fina but with the ISL things are different: we have been involved from the get-go. Today, I am the proud vice-captain and co-owner, alongside my parents, of New York’s newest professional sports team: The New York Breakers. In four months’ time, my fellow New York team mates and I will be able to do all our talking in the pool as the International Swimming League gets underway.
We were offered a partnership in which we share ownership of the team and revenues with the ISL. Our plan to build the business entails building the roster with the highest quality individuals. We want to have the most professional, most prepared group of pros so that any investor would be proud to be associated with – for their reputation as athletes, both in and out of the water.
Swimmers’ commercial opportunities haven’t just been held back from the lack of action from our global governing body. We’ve also been held back by draconian, outdated rules such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC’s) Rule 40. Rule 40 has until now really prevented swimmers and other athletes from expressing themselves and thanking their sponsors during an Olympic period, but I can see things are starting to change. Swimmers have been buoyed by the recent decision against Rule 40 and in favor of German athletes by the Cartel Office in Germany. As a result, they will now have greater liberty to express themselves on digital platforms at a Games, and in turn, grow their earning and commercial potential during their moment in the sun. It’s the first brick in the wall, and I think the athlete community is really starting to feel it has a powerful collective voice that can instigate real, meaningful change from our governing bodies.
If we as athletes don’t get involved now, we cannot continue to complain. It is pointless to just focus all our effort and time in training in the pool. This is our business and our livelihoods. When the powers that be offer us a seat at the table, we need to be ready to step into that role and shape the sport for the next generation, no matter what the cost is for our careers.
We get that every sport has to fight for its place among sports fans’ hearts. We get that every sport needs to move with the times. And we get that swimming has failed to do so until now.