The Outsight: What if swimming competitions were as entertaining and profitable as the Super Bowl, Champions League, or Wimbledon?
Swimming is one of the most popular sports in the world and also one of the most-watched competitions during the Summer Olympics - but have you ever watched, or even remember hearing about any other big swimming competitions?
How about swimmers - how many famous swimmers can you name? My guess is that, for most people, it would be wildly less than, for example, the number of footballers, NBA players, or tennis players you know, right?
But why is that? I mean, we’re always talking about other sports (by “we” I also mean the mainstream media) - even tennis and golf, which are much more “niche” sports with less participation, get lots of attention.
So why aren’t we more engaged in competitive swimming? Or at least engaged more often?
If we think about the other sports that have regular viewership and higher engagement - like football (both soccer and American football), basketball, tennis - what they have in common is the showmanship of the tournaments, the entertainment beyond the competition, and that is something we have never seen in swimming competitions before. Can that be the reason?
Konstantin Grigorishin, a Ukrainian billionaire who made money with metallurgy and an avid swimming enthusiast, thinks so.
He realized that swimming, with an estimated 300 million practitioners worldwide, had considerable untapped potential. He thought it was inexplicable that swimming has only a fraction of the industry’s global media and sponsorship rights market, and that even the best swimmers in the world receive comparatively little media attention (and pay) outside of the Olympics.
“Why is swimming such a popular sport but the competitions are so boring? Why is swimming such a popular sport but there is no money in swimming? And the third question was: is it possible to fix this situation?” - Konstantin Grigorishin
So he saw an opportunity and took upon himself to find a solution, and that’s when the International Swimming League was born.
The intention behind ISL is to create a more exciting and lucrative swimming competition, and Konstantin wants to emphasize the “sportainment” aspect of it, which goes beyond the tournament itself and includes entertainment in between sets as well as community-driven activities such as “swimming clinics”.
You have to admire his vision - what started as a passion project is now a huge international competition currently in its second season, this time in Budapest.
What’s different about the ISL competition is also that instead of individual swimmers competing for themselves or for their countries, they compete for teams that can have multiple nationalities - it’s like the Champions League of swimming.
As the Australian swimmer Cate Campbell puts it, having a team competition is great for longevity:
“It gives audiences an opportunity to get behind a team, which is something that we have not had an opportunity to do as swimmers.” - Cate Campbell
Having athletes support the ISL has been a huge factor in the success of the league so far, and Konstantin had always known that they needed to have their interests aligned with the athletes’.
“This project is not possible without athlete support. Like each big sports event, even the Olympic Games, you can spend billions of dollars but if athletes will not come, who will care about these facilities and infrastructure? We have to respect that.” - Konstantin Grigorishin
The ISL also wants to help the swimmers to protect their rights through the league - that’s why its appeal is so strong among the swimming community.
These are some of the things put in place by ISL to ensure fairness and equality:
Rights: Insurance and pension plans (which, as independent swimmers, the athletes did not have before)
Profit: There are individual and club prizes, separately, and the revenue is split 50/50 between the league and the athletes (which has long been a point of discontentment with FINA, the international federation for water sports recognized by the Olympic committee as the official regulating body for the sport)
Integrity: Athletes previously banned for doping are excluded
Equality: The league demands an equal number of men and women per team as well as offers equal prize pay for female and male winners
Visibility: With more exposure, athletes can also get more recognition and better sponsorship deals
As the Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu said in an interview:
“We have been fighting for this kind of change for some years and now we are in the middle of a revolution in our sport” - Katinka Hosszu
Katinka and 2 other swimmers had sued FINA in 2018 after the organization threatened to keep them from competing in the Olympics if they went ahead with competing in the ISL - but FINA backed down.
Adam Peaty, the 25-year-old British swimmer, spoke passionately about their fight against the FINA monopoly in an interview:
“I don’t care, ban me if you’ve got to. I’m not bothered because at the end of the day they know they can’t. We need transparency and a 50-50 split of the profits. I love my sport to the moon and back but the main reason people quit swimming all over the world is because there isn’t enough funding. I want to secure the future for the kids who are going to be winning Olympics in 20 years and hopefully making a living out of it.” - Adam Peaty
Recreational swimming has been around since cave times (for reals, I looked it up!) and it has been a competitive sport since the 1800s - but the competitions have hardly changed since then. That’s more than 200 years!
It could be that now, in the beginning, the ISL and their athletes feel they are swimming against the current - but I think it’s fair to say that it was about time for a change!
If you want to follow the remaining days of the 2020 ISL competition in Budapest, going until November 22nd, you can follow the league’s social media channels (IG, Twitter, FB, YouTube) as well as watch the live competition here.
Images courtesy of ISL
If you’re interested in this topic, here are some links to get you started on your rabbit hole:
Sports Gazette - “Is the International Swimming League what the sport needs?”, Dec 2019
CBC - “The quirky International Swimming League, explained”, Oct 2020
SportsPro - “The International Swimming League’s Konstantin Grigorishin is a rebel with a cause”, May 2019
Bloomberg - “Swimming Goes Pro With League Backed by Ukrainian Billionaire”, Nov 2019
BBC Sport - “International Swimming League: Your guide to season two in the 'Budapest bubble', Oct 2020