How Much Longer Will the International Swimming League (ISL) Last?

ISL ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 7 day 1 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

How Much Longer Will the International Swimming League (ISL) Last?

When Russian-Ukrainian businessman and billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin announced the creation of the first-ever swimming league, fans of the sport were extremely excited. The league meant more opportunities for athletes beyond the collegiate level and another revenue stream for professional swimmers. It was supposed to be a landmark achievement that revolutionized the sport worldwide.

Three seasons later, it has been anything but what aquatic stakeholders envisioned.

The International Swimming League (ISL) has been marred with controversy from its inception. As a precursor event for the league, Grigorishin and his Energy Standard Group sponsored an Energy for Swim meet in Italy in late December 2018, only a few days after the World Short Course Championships that year. Many elite swimmers, such as Olympic champions Adam Peaty, Michael Andrew and Sarah Sjostrom, signed up for the meet, with some like Peaty opting for the meet instead of World Short Course. As more and more high-profile athletes signed contracts and pulled out of the World Short Course Champs, FINA did whatever it could to block the meet from happening. The world aquatic governing body refused to give the approval the meet needed as an international competition to proceed and threatened athletes with one to two-year bans if they participated.

After negotiations broke down between the two parties, Grigorishin canceled the meet and turned his attention to developing the International Swimming League. Its first season unfolded fairly well, with many top-level swimmers like Caeleb Dressel, Chad Le Clos and Ranomi Kromowidjojo going all in and competing at most, if not all the regular-season stops.

With a seemingly successful first year, it looked like the league would only grow and attract the attention of every elite athlete and major corporate sponsors.

The following season, though, commenced a steep downward spiral for the ISL. In June 2020, French newspaper LaPresse claimed the league owed them around 200,000 Euros from season one. Shortly after, another vendor, Flying Fish Productions, made a similar claim about not being paid.

The ISL never responded to the accusations and, a few months later, announced a 2020 season in a COVID-19 safe bubble environment in Budapest, Hungary. Swimmers and fans were ecstatic as it brought light to a year that saw little competition in any sport and gave athletes a chance to salvage some earnings from a financially devastating year for most.

Things appeared to be running smoothly before reports came out that the league owed digital agency LiveWire Sport a “six-figure sum” for content it created for ISL Season One.

A few weeks after that, former Energy Standard General Manager (GM) Jean-Francois Salessy abruptly resigned from his post the same day his team qualified for the Season Two final. In an open letter to Grigorishin, he heavily criticized how he was running the league and said he “no longer wishes to be part of (Grigorishin’s) fake movie.”

In the days that followed, LiveWire Sport instructed its lawyers to begin legal proceedings on the debt owed, and another report came out that IMG Media was still awaiting payments from Season One, the fourth company to make such an accusation. To further worsen matters, it was also revealed that multiple athletes had not received the solidarity payments promised at the beginning of the pandemic. In light of the dire financial and governance situation, managing director Herbert Montocoudiol joined Salessy in resigning.

While Grigorishin tried to continue building the league with innovations like a draft, the controversy persisted.

Last September, Salessy and Montocoudiol claimed that the debts the league owed to the various companies were still unpaid. Not long after, veteran journalist Phil Lutton of the Sydney Morning Herald reported that athletes were considering boycotting the ISL Playoffs due to non-payments dating back to Season Two.

The playoffs ended up taking place, as, according to two-time Olympic medalist Cody Miller, the league was able to pay most of the athletes in full.

About a week before the ISL Final, Peaty put Miller’s statement into question when he revealed that he had not received full compensation for his participation in the 2020 season. The London Roar athlete told Swimming World: “I am still not paid for everything. I’ve been part-paid but not for all of it, and that is from last year.”

Considering Peaty is one of the most high-profile athletes in the sport, one would think he would be one of the first to be paid. He shared similar beliefs, questioning how many athletes had actually received payments.

“If I’ve not been paid, then who else hasn’t?” asked the double Olympic champion.

Roar GM Rob Woodhouse (who has since resigned) said Grigorishin assured him that the world record holder’s payment was coming, but it is uncertain whether that has actually happened.

Amid mounting debts and continued controversy, the ISL recently announced its Season Four plans. The league is set to begin in June with a 24-match schedule, consisting of 15 regular season matches, six playoff matches, and one final, in addition to a wildcard match in both the regular season and playoffs. It also promised increased prize money and an option for athletes to be either a “pro” or “semi-pro” to give them more flexibility in planning their 2022 schedules.

A few days after the ISL announcement, FINA revealed that it would be having an “extraordinary” World Aquatic Championships held in late June in Budapest. With FINA postponing the World Championships previously scheduled for May in Fukuoka, Japan, to next summer, there were initially no plans for global international competition in 2022. But, according to the governing body’s announcement, it wanted to ensure “athletes have a global aquatics championships to target in the summer of 2022.”

While it is welcome news for American swimmers who had no international meets to target in 2022, it poses another challenge for the ISL as the meet conflicts with the regular season.

The following days brought further blows for the league. Within 72 hours of FINA’s announcement, Woodhouse and Olympic gold medalist Kaitlin Sandeno stepped down from their respective roles as the GMs for the Londor Roar and DC Trident. While Sandeno never gave any specific reason for her departure, Woodhouse, an Olympic medalist himself, said he stepped down because he lost “belief in the vision and strategy of the league.”

To add insult to injury, less than a week ago, the Dutch Swimming Federation (KNZB) prohibited its swimmers from competing in ISL Season Four, as it believes the schedule overcrowds the national and international sporting calendar. According to Ben Van Rompuy, assistant professor of EU Competition Law at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the KNZB also views the ISL as an “unreliable partner for its members.”

Although legendary Netherlands ISL swimmer Kromowidjojo is now retired, many elite Dutch swimmers such Kira Toussaint (London Roar), Jesse Puts (Cali Condors), and Arno Kamminga (Aqua Centurions) have excelled in the ISL in the past.

With international competitions obviously taking precedence, we may see other major federations imposing similar rules, at least for the first five matches.

Looking at the near future, another thing to consider is the cramped international schedule in the lead-up to Paris 2024. With the addition of Budapest in June, athletes will have three World Championships in the two years before the Olympics. Thinking about how many championships there are in the already condensed Olympic cycle due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most athletes will be looking to carefully manage their schedules so that they can peak for the pinnacle event.

This could leave many elite athletes limiting their participation or forgoing the league altogether.

Overall, things do not look good for the ISL’s future.

In its three years of existence, it has been constantly embroiled in conflict with FINA, damaged relationships with numerous outside stakeholders, and struggled to garner full-time commitment from the sport’s most elite athletes.

Additionally, it is not a good sign that multiple people formerly in high-level positions within the ISL have lost faith in the league and openly spoken out about its poor management.

As swimming enthusiasts, we have longed for an avenue to revolutionize the sport. While we thought the ISL was the answer, each season has shown how less and less likely that is.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.