When Jean-François Salessy resigned from his position of general manager just hours after his team — then-defending champion and powerhouse Energy Standard — sealed its trip to the International Swimming League final on Nov. 15, it perfectly encapsulated the enigma that is the league itself.
As the traditionally non-lucrative sport of swimming’s first team-based professional league, the ISL has been a coup for swimmers. And, in some cases, a godsend for those looking to extend their careers in this surprise non-Olympic year.
ISL founder Konstantin Grigorishin launched the league in 2017 because of his personal passion for the sport — and disdain for the way it has historically been marketed and managed. Its first season ran from October to December 2019 with seven meets in various locations around the world, concluding with a flashy final in Las Vegas, while a condensed second season held entirely at a single Budapest campus just concluded.
Proponents say the 10-team league has the ability to both kickstart and financially revitalize careers, as well as provide a divergence from swimming’s times-based norm with a unique scoring system.
Fans and media, however, have been hesitant to fully embrace the upstart venture, thanks in part to at least four complaints by vendors against league officials for a failure to pay for services provided during the inaugural season; public spats with established governing bodies; and a sense that the seemingly endless stream of funding from Grigorishin, a Ukrainian businessman whose net worth is estimated to be in the low billions, will eventually dry up.
In an open letter announcing his resignation, Salessy compared the ISL to an iceberg with an “attractive visible part” and a submerged “dark side,” citing Grigorishin’s constant criticism of the Olympic Games to the press, self-serving practices and a lack of pay for general managers and support staff.
But with impressive broadcast deals, sky-high production quality, and an international “bubble” that saw zero COVID-19 cases, the ISL remains a plucky endeavor fans can’t help but root for.
“I think ISL represents the best opportunity our sport has ever had to make a leap forward,” says three-time Olympic champion Ryan Murphy, who’ll head home with over $180,000 in prize money.
Take the story of former NCAA standout and Olympian Tom Shields, who after a few down years and struggles with mental health issues has re-emerged as a bona fide star. Shields, who’s dreamed of making truly professionalized swimming a reality since childhood, is one of three swimmers currently suing the sports’ international governing body, FINA, for effectively trying to stifle the ISL’s growth by threatening sanctions for athletes who participate in the league.
A week after that suit was filed, FINA launched the “Champions Swim Series,” an ISL copycat with a $4 million purse.
For someone like Shields, who hasn’t competed in a major event for Team USA since the Rio Games, the money is crucial — he’s taking away nearly $100,000 in winnings alone for the six-week season. All 240 participants in the season have also been promised $1,500 per month for 10 months.
“I was hurting before this,” he said. “I think what’s cool about the ISL versus, say, some other events, is that the other events get, like, six people paid. … The ISL is very equitable. And if you look at the money list — obviously the top end is payable and is going to be a significant amount more than, say, 15-plus places down — but this is the deepest field we’ve paid in swimming. And we’re very thankful for that. And as we continue to grow, hopefully, as we continue to garner support from outside the league, that will continue to be the case. And that’s why the league-based, team-based sports can support rosters this size.”
The league also touts pay equality for female and male athletes, and MVP races that disregard gender. Though a savvy move to advertise equity amid the current cultural reckoning with the value of women in sports, athletes are quick to point out that equal prize money isn’t new for swimming.
For some top swimmers, like Murphy, going to Budapest was more about getting a change of scenery after half a year locked down in Berkeley, Calif., than the payout.
“I’m in a very fortunate position that I have a couple of really good sponsors. So for me, the money is nice to have, but it’s definitely not the reason I came here,” Murphy said. “I love this sport because of the competition, and ISL providing an opportunity for me to get in the water and compete is huge. But I don’t want to minimize the financial aspect, because it is super important to support some of these professional swimmers so that they can continue to swim.”
The league offers a new path for recent college grads stateside and some international up-and-comers, who previously would not have turned pro, and is a lifeline for veterans who may have been planning to make ends meet until Tokyo before calling it a career.
“I can guarantee you — I won’t name names — but I can guarantee you, that there would be some athletes that probably would have retired back in March if it wasn’t for the ISL,” says ISL commentator Rowdy Gaines, the three-time Olympic gold medalist primarily known for his work calling the games for NBC. “And that gives them hope. And that’s what we kind of need as a sport right now — we need hope.”
The league’s 10 teams race in a 25-meter pool — just longer than American collegiate pools — as opposed to the 50-meter Olympic pool, which happens to play to Shields’ personal strengths. It also features a callback to another element of amateur swimming that athletes love: competing for a team, for points, where times are somewhat of an afterthought. That contrasts to the individualistic, times-based nature of pro swimming, during which many wax nostalgic for the collegiate and high school days.
“I think [team scores] are what make NCAAs exciting. That’s what makes dual meets exciting. And yeah, if you see close to a world record or a world record, that’s always a big deal,” Shields said, also calling team-based competition “the future of the sport.”
“But one of the coolest marriages of that idea is in jackpot times.”
With the so-called “jackpot times,” the clock does still play a role: If slower swimmers finish far enough behind the winner, the winner gets their points — and prize money to boot. The feature placates some of the die-hard swim fans who lament that racing the clock, historically an integral aspect of the sport, doesn’t matter to the same degree in the ISL.
“We’re so used to being black-and-white in our sport, meaning the clock,” Gaines said. “And the clock does matter in ways. We know about the American records and everybody loves the world records, and I talk about the clock and splits a lot, but in the end, it’s a team battle, which is something good for our sport. They’re trying to do something new, and that should be championed. That should be welcomed, because our sport has been in a box for a long time.”
For Hungarian star and ISL team owner Katinka Hosszu, who sued FINA along with Shields, shaping swimming’s next phase is top of mind. At 31 and after three Olympics, she thinks the ISL is the lynchpin to solidifying her legacy as a trailblazer in the business of swimming.
“I have been able to reach everything there is in swimming. So this is something that if I look back, I definitely think it can be really cool that I was at the beginning and we’ve been able to change the perspective of swimming and making swim more professional,” she said. “But it’s going to be the next generation that will really benefit from what’s happening now.”
Though progress has already been made during her career, Hosszu noted, growing professional swimming into what she, Shields, Murphy and many other veterans envision will mean finding a way to appeal to the general sports fan.
Team-based competitions are just one aspect of many ways to grow interest, but the ISL will have to play a part in helping to shake swimming’s reputation as a once-every-four-years spectacle with a cult-like following.
“This is a year-to-year championship and a year-to-year opportunity to expose ourselves to the world. So what we can accomplish in 16 years in the Olympics, we can accomplish in four here,” Shields said. “The comparisons aren’t going to be one-to-one right out the gate, but we can develop much more quickly and we have much more freedom to do so, because we’re not laden to the bureaucratic-driven world that that lifestyle is.”
The timeline and challenges that swimming faces are not unlike that of a football league challenger like the XFL, Gaines noted. But those leagues, of course, face stiffer competition in a monolith like the NFL.
Kaitlin Sandeno, an Olympic gold medalist, seasoned swimming media host and general manager of the ISL team DC Trident, echoed Gaines.
“Obviously I think most of the swimming world is aware of the ISL, but I definitely don’t think the general population knows what ISL is or what it’s about,” Sandeno said. “But I know that’s not going to happen overnight or in one season.”
Industry experts say the same — that time and constant brand-building is key.
Sports agent Cejih Yung, who represents four swimmers who were in the bubble, said the ISL could look to the early days of the UFC for inspiration to create more content around athletes. The UFC began as a reality TV series called “The Ultimate Fighter,” paid for by Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III, to ease mainstream audiences into mixed martial arts.
The ISL has the platforms and the production capabilities to do so. It inked a multi-year deal in the United States to broadcast all matches on CBS networks, including a midday match on CBS Television Network during opening weekend. That match drew 381,000 viewers, comparable to what an average NWSL match brought in last season on CBS.
In all, the league landed media rights deals to air in 140 countries.
“I think the multi-year aspect [of the CBS deal] is the most exciting, the most encouraging part,” Yung said. “The fact that they’re able to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to make this a multi-year deal,’ shows that a large media corporation sees the value in the production and the content, and that they have a bigger plan in store for the ISL.”
CBS Sports, however, did not roll out any highlights or other content on social media during the league’s Nov. 21-22 final.
“In general, people are really thirsty for sports. So I think especially in the swimming world where there hasn’t really been any consistent swimming to watch, this has been really big for our community. But I think there is some disconnect. I don’t think that a lot of the federations are promoting it. Obviously FINA’s not promoting it. So it’s really our own swimmers in the league and ISL that’s really husting to get the word out there and obviously [the CBS deal] helps tremendously,” Sandeno added. “I think if we can grow our social media followers and impact by spreading the word, that’s going to be huge.”
Mel Stewart, an Olympic gold medalist and founder of swimming media company SwimSwam, had a similar take.
“Standing back and looking at the market and what’s happened during the pandemic, I give the ISL an A+, because they’ve pulled this off,” Stewart said. “The ISL, however, has not followed this crucial rule in media, which is to never stop. … To me, they are a rights holder and a media business and event management, and you can never stop telling your story. And they stopped telling their story. So as of ‘Season 1’ and ‘Season 2,’ they’re now a seasonal business, and a seasonal business is a tough business to run, because you’re always rebooting your brand.”
Both Stewart and Gaines, two of the more public faces of the past 40 years or so of gold-standard swimming in the U.S., admitted they were initially worried about what the league would do to the sport.
“Last year, I wasn’t a believer,” Gaines said. “I wasn’t really a total believer until I got here and saw the commitment from the league saying, ‘We’re trying to do our best here. We’re trying to get these opportunities, these kids, and we’re trying to grow the sport.’”
“I’m old enough to be afraid that it might not work,” Stewart said. “I was near panic attack levels the day of the first match [last year]. And I don’t think that I was alone.”
The next step for the league, especially in an untested Olympic year alongside the ongoing uncertainty of the pandemic, is not yet clear. There’s been talk of another single-site season, Sandeno said, but there’s no public word on plans for season three.
Despite the uncertainties, if the funds keep flowing, there’s reason to believe the ISL is well on the way to accomplishing its mission.
“I know in talking to leadership in traditional swim, globally, that they think this business isn’t real. They think it is folly and it will fail — and it’s just going to run out of go-go juice, it’s going to run out of gas,” Stewart said. “I do not agree for a very, very specific reason: their impressions across social, across television, across every single story generated on them. It has a very, very broad footprint, and the totality of it is a business model. The totality of it works.”
For the league to achieve what it’s set out to do, it will need more funding. Outside of the typical costs of putting on a season, the multiple complaints against the league allege it owes six-figure sums to content companies contracted over the last two seasons.
“In our nine-year history we have never been forced into considering such drastic measures and it would be incredibly disappointing to have to take these steps,” London-based content agency LiveWire Sport, which has taken legal action, said. “It is unfortunate that things have got to this stage, but we have been left with no choice but to look at recovering the debts owed to us by ISL through our lawyers.”
Some question whether Grigorishin will be able to continue to foot the massive bill if other sources of funding don’t materialize — and soon. In a recent statement, the league said it “hoped for meaningful revenues to come in but alongside the impact of the pandemic [its] commercial operations have also failed significantly with most projections not materialising.” The league added that its market approach will need to shift moving forward.
“We need sponsors. This is all Konstantin right now, which is just so generous — and obviously this is an investment, it’s a business project that he’s on right now — but he can’t keep doing this all on his own. So getting sponsors is huge and helps each club individually,” Sandeno said. “Things are tight, and trying to get them warm apparel over here and caps and snacks and water … it’s not cheap. Even paying for COVID tests, we had to be able to provide some kind of financial relief because those COVID tests are expensive and we had to take them before we could even get over here. So all that stuff adds up.”
But one thing is clear amid the skepticism: the swimmers have bought in.
Caeleb Dressel — the undisputed heir to Michael Phelps’ superstardom and winner of nearly $300,000 in prize money this season along with the MVP title — gave the league a highly coveted stamp of legitimacy on Nov. 22 after setting his fourth world record in Budapest.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had swimming in my life,” he said on national TV. “This has been an iconic moment, I think, for my career.”