Commentary: Why The Clock Matters & The League Must Tick The Tock Box

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The ISL has put racing as the top priority over times in the new league, but here is why they shouldn't be ignoring something so important to the sport. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The International Swimming League has been a huge success this fall with many of the world’s best swimmers participating in the exciting league that gives them a chance to race the best and travel around the world more often. It’s been a big win for the athletes who have been longing for something more exciting in the lull between World Championships and Olympics.

As a swimming fan, it has been exciting to watch a new format in which Sarah Sjostrom and Chad Le Clos are on the same team and are actively trying to finish ahead of the swimmers around them so they can get points for their team. Swimmers aren’t scratching events to focus on other swims, and each heat is filled with eight swimmers because the teams know there is something at stake. It’s not about them, it’s about their team, and it has been nice to see that change of pace in a sport that has been so individualized. It makes meets more exciting when there is something on the line.

Normally, we would see the swimmers compete a handful of times each year. But with the ISL, we will get to see them more often and they will have a chance to earn real money as they shoot for the Olympic Games where they will be on television for the entire world to see.

However, not everything has been perfect, which is expected with a new league. Not everything is going to 100% satisfy everyone involved but there was one glaring problem with the ISL telecasts: the lack of showing times from each swimmer.

Make Times Great Again

Foto Gian Mattia D'Alberto/LaPresse 20 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League Nella foto: SETO Daiya Photo Gian Mattia D'Alberto/LaPresse December 20, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League In the picture: SETO Daiya

Daiya Seto’s delight at setting the World Record over 400m medley at the International Swimming League Final in Las Vegas – Photo Courtesy: Gian Mattia D’Alberto/LaPresse

The league was built on the notion of racing taking priority over the times shown on the board. The meet moves so quickly that it is almost impossible to fully analyze all the times in each race before moving on to the next event. What matters in the ISL format is who is winning each event and where each swimmer placed. It doesn’t necessarily matter that they were five seconds off world record pace or a second below it. The points are the same in each event.

The fact is: racing is important. For the majority of this season, the swimmers in the league were competing on virtually no rest so there weren’t going to be many records set. But to make the times on the scoreboard irrelevant just feels weird.

Times are shown in the live venue on the scoreboard and the swimmers and coaches know the results right away but the fans at home don’t get that. Maybe this is all a ploy to get people to buy tickets to the events, but the fact is that fans want to know what the times are.

But to not even list the world records before the race feels odd, and to not have the world record pace at the bottom of the screen feels weird too. It was up to the commentators to let the fans know if they were on pace for a record, and it was up to them to let the audience know what the world record was. This can get overwhelming just for the commentators because they already have enough to focus on during the race. For a swimming fan, there seems to be no harm in showing the world record pace at the bottom of the screen just to give the viewer a sense of how fast they are going.

One of the arguments we have heard for why times aren’t shown on the telecasts is that “there are non-swimming fans that don’t necessarily know what a 2:02 200 breaststroke means.” But there are swimming fans that DO know what a 2:02 200 breaststroke means so why has the coverage dumbed itself down to adhere to non-swimming fans? The league seems to be trying to draw in more non-swimming fans that they are forgetting about the fans that already exist.

Why Times Should Mean Something in the ISL

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Caeleb Dressel – Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

The ISL wants to attract more fans to the sport of swimming. What is more exciting than a world record in swimming? Three world records have been set this season from Minna AthertonDaiya Seto and Caeleb Dressel. But if you didn’t already know what the world record was in those events before, then you likely wouldn’t know that those swimmers broke records as they happened. The world records are not listed on the results sheets nor are they listed on the telecast.

Advertising that world records could be set at the end of the season would give casual fans more of an incentive to go and would give TV networks more motivation to want to put these events on television.

There were a couple American and European records set during the season and unless the commentators noted it on the broadcast, then those factoids would often go unnoticed. These are historical swims that are going unnoticed because “times don’t matter!”

But they do matter.

Take this for instance: in the semi finals in each event at the Olympics this coming summer, the eight fastest times from the two heats will advance to the final. That means that eight swimmers from one heat could theoretically advance to the final. (To our knowledge, this has never happened. But in 2008, seven swimmers from one semi final in the men’s 200 free made the final). In track and field, the top two from the three semi finals will automatically advance to the final and the two fastest third place times will advance. This is because track and field races are dictated by pace and conditions can vary from each heat.

Swimming is a time-driven sport whereas track & field is a race-driven sport. However, in the “swimming reimagined” realm with the ISL, it is more race-driven. Having the swimmers race for points rather than for times has been exciting, and it makes the sport more interesting to follow when the storyline is “which team is going to win?” rather than “will X swimmer break a world record?”

However, the ISL hasn’t made times completely irrelevant. There is a point deduction if a swimmer goes slower than the minimum time standard for each event. This is to ensure that no one is dogging it and everyone is kept honest with their swimming. The best of the best deserve to be in the league, which makes sense.

But why isn’t there a point bonus if there is a world record? That doesn’t happen in the NCAA (nor should it) but if there is going to be a point deduction for going too slow, then there should at least be a bonus for going fast. Perhaps it could be just a +1 or it could mean double points. It would give each swim more meaning and since the ISL has been keen on putting a new twist to the sport, why not make up rules like this? There would be an incentive to breaking a world record and it would certainly make the meet more interesting.

If that’s not going to happen then world records should at least be listed on the start lists and results sheets so that “non-swimming fans” at least have some context for what these swims mean, because they aren’t going to know how impressive Seto, Dressel, or Atherton’s swims were unless they can see the world records listed to compare.

Saying “times don’t matter” is like saying the the regular season in basketball doesn’t matter. Sure that may be true in the long run (nobody remembers that the Cleveland Cavaliers won 57 games in the 2015-16 season, just that they won the Finals) but basketball writers and basketball players still use the regular season as data to see who is in good shape to make a run in the playoffs.

Why would we have a regular season if it didn’t matter? Just like, why are we even having a swim meet if we are going to ignore what the clock says? If James Guy gets eighth in an ISL race, it doesn’t mean he won’t make the Olympic final. It just means he didn’t have a great race. It’s data. And it is information that James Guy and his coach will use so he can be better the next time he swims that event.

What Should The League Do?

Foto Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse 21 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League. Nella foto: il trofeo Photo Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse December 21, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League. In the picture: the trophy

The coveted ISL trophy. Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

The only way fans can follow with results in the live event is to watch the broadcast online. But if they are unavailable then it is much more difficult to follow along. Results are not on Omega Timing like they are for many international events, nor are they live on the ISL website, or anywhere else on the internet. Fans would have to follow along with swimming news outlets like Swimming World to follow along, but if we don’t have access to the times as they happen, then neither does the public.

It’s a glaring problem with the league that many fans have voiced their opinions on. Don’t get me wrong, the racing has been fantastic and the league has been a joy to watch. But swimming is a sport built on what is seen on the scoreboard, and it feels odd to be robbed of that information during the meet. Especially when not every fan will be able to watch every single meet live.

As the league gets bigger and as more meets take place, it will be important for the league to make these changes, otherwise fans might get turned off. Here are some simple fixes that we would suggest:

  • Show all eight times from the swims on a graphic after each race.
  • List world records when introducing event and track the world record pace during the race so fans know what is happening
  • Publish results live on the Internet or on mobile phone apps for fans that are unable to watch.
  • Keep running tabs during season of who has the faster times. Would be helpful when the league gets bigger to try and predict where Energy Standard could match up against the new Tokyo team that has been added. Coaches and swimmers would like it, too!

Now, for some events like the Skins, times really don’t matter because it is all about placing to try and advance to the next round. That makes sense. And when covering the event live, it moved too quickly to list what times the swimmers went. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the times altogether.

This isn’t open water swimming where racing is literally the only thing that matters. There aren’t world records in open water swimming because each course is different and the conditions aren’t going to be consistent across each venue. In order to get to the Olympic Games this summer, the swimmers had to finish in the top ten at the World Championships. There wasn’t a time standard they had to achieve. All the swimmers dove in knowing that ten of them would come out as Olympians at the end of the 2 hour race.

And maybe that’s what the ISL is really trying to achieve: to give the swimmers a break from the clock. But they are still using the times swum in these meets as data to move forward to see improvement for themselves.

Don’t get me wrong, the ISL has been fun to watch and I applaud everything the league is doing. But these are things that will have to be worked out in the future of the league.