As Third ISL Season Wraps Up, Power Balance Is Same as It Ever Was

Energy Standard - ISL
Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

As Third ISL Season Wraps Up, Power Balance Is Same as It Ever Was

The ISL regular season has ended, and as much as the league is changing the sport of swimming, one thing remains naggingly constant.

Let’s see if you can spot it. Here are the finalists in each of the first two seasons of the league:

  • 2019: Energy Standard, London Roar, Cali Condors, LA Current
  • 2020: Cali Condors, London Roar, Energy Standard, LA Current

And after 10 matches of the 2021 season, the league standings are as follows:

  1. Energy Standard 16
  2. Cali Condors 15
  3. London Roar 13
  4. Toronto Titans 12
  5. LA Current 11
  6. Aqua Centurions 10
  7. Team Iron 8
  8. Tokyo Frog Kings 6
  9. DC Trident 5
  10. NY Breakers 4

By some measures, Toronto sneaking into fourth place might rank as variety. By others, the LA Current plummeting from fourth to fifth in a season where it hasn’t had superstar Ryan Murphy is really just more of the same. With the playoffs to come, and Toronto’s lackluster showing in Match 9, there’s no guarantee that the Energy-Cali-London-LA blockade will be broken when the league rolls into Eindhoven for its playoffs in November.

Konstantin Grigorishin doesn’t seem like someone all that concerned with parity, and the insistence on it seems to be a particular hang up of American sporting leagues, with their redistributive drafting bent. But there’s a fine line for the league to walk moving forward. Coherent identities and philosophies are great, but at some point, swimmers on the New York Breakers and DC Trident have to see their enthusiasm wane as a constant punching bag in the team standings.

It’s worth first looking at the positives. Teams have, over two or three seasons, crafted unique identities, and those can certainly fluctuate as the fortunes of the nations on which they’re based do. Italy has a historic Olympic showing? Good for Aqua Centurions. Japan struggles under the pressure of hosting the Tokyo Games? All the worse for the Frog Kings. You saw the cost to the London Roar last year without their Australian contingent and the surge in the Toronto Titans off the success of Canada at the Olympics.

Some of the imbalance is unavoidable. As long as the American talent is largely split between four franchises and the college system excludes a large portion of that talent pool (particularly as the stars on the women’s side skew younger as in Tokyo), there’s going to be a deficit incurred by someone. The move to widen the impact of distance swimmers has been a boon to teams at the bottom of the standings last year like Toronto (via Alberto Razzetti and Summer McIntosh), the Breakers (Abbie Wood and Brendon Smith) and the Trident (Bailey Andison).

But the scoring system of ISL is inherently top heavy. Having solid, middle-of-the-pack depth is useless if another team’s superstar steals the jackpot. It’s even more pronounced in the relays. If you lack sprint depth (that’s Tokyo and New York), then skins hold little promise for you.

That leaves the only obvious remedy to be a redistribution of star swimmers. ISL has been reticent to do that; in some cases – like Siobhan Haughey moving from D.C. to Energy Standard – it’s retrenched the star power of teams. The ability to attract athletes is, to some degree, in the hands of each program, and it’s incumbent on the franchises to do that, financially and otherwise. But when you see, as is a regular occurrence, one team like the Condors or Energy Standard able to produce the top four or five scorers or seven of the top 10 in a match, there’s a clear imbalance.

ISL is generating excitement in the sport. It’s just a matter if the sameness of the leaders year after year will flatten that.