International Swimming League Debrief: Tips & Tweaks For Season II

Foto Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse 21 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League. Nella foto: Cali Condor Photo Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse December 21, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League. In the picture: Cali Condor
Lilly King and fellow queens of the Condors celebrate medley relay victory in Las Vegas - Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

Over the past three days, the Swimming World writing team has brought you its collated thoughts on the first season of the International Swimming League. The exercise took a look at what we perceive as pros, cons (Pro et contra – for and against) and solutions that we recommend the League takes into account when holding its essential debrief.

On the whole, the Swimming World Team agrees. There are nuances in the mix and some observations and proposed solutions raise more questions than they provide answers.

The point is not to have an argument but simply list the key observations of a team of writers that knows its swimming, is supportive of the League, the changes it has brought to a sport in need of a new model and a truly Pro-Athlete platform, but has kept a keen and balanced eye one step back from the obvious and entirely understandable gushing support from athletes, the coaches involved and, of course, the organisers of the League.

  • Contributions from: Liz Byrnes, Dan D’Addona, Ian Hanson, Sabrina Knoll, John Lohn, Craig Lord, Andy Ross and a few wise folk who have spent the first ISL season at the water’s edge.
  • We invite readers to join our exercise by posting comments at the end of this article or visiting our pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to leave their own observations and views on the first League season

Our League Debrief In Brief

Part 3: What Lessons Might be Learned From ISL Season 1

As stated above, not all will agree with the upsides, the downsides nor indeed the recommendations, tips and tweaks suggested below. Some will, some won’t.

In the midst of the suggestions are what we believe to be essentials for improving on the astonishing achievement of the first season of the League.

Much emphasis was placed on building a short-sharp blast TV show and showcase for swimming and swimmers. The purpose was to provide a genuinely professional platform for swimmers.

Certainly, what we’ve seen has the backing of swimmers, while coaches and federations have vocalised their support and in some cases put their words to deed.

The great settings, fast and tight races and the emphasis on racing caught the eye. The League’s potential is enormous.

Racing, of course, does not mean you always need the clock turned off – nor on. In general, you need it turned on in swimming. There is scope for turning it off, on occasions, too – and these have yet to be properly explored.

In the midst of the notes below is this: We know what the world’s leading golfers, tennis, football and basketball players get. The story of swimming’s growth also requires that we know how swimmers and the coaches and managers are benefitting from a new world that has, so far, been subsidised by an investor the sport is immensely lucky to have found in Konstantin Grigorishin. Subsidies have to subside to paying your own way and making profits that feed further development if ‘professional’ is going to be meant.

Also worth noting what great companies, particularly tech-led concerns involved in plane, e-car (life and death in the balance) and computer manufacture include as a key component of the regular debriefs critical to their financial and ethical status and, ultimately, their survival: they must ensure that Model 2 is a genuine advance on Model 1. It’s happened, of course, but the computer company that introduces 3 great new features in its latest version of a star product but loses 10 features users and consumers loved in the old version is on a slippery slope.

The League has a big journey ahead. We believe that the more open the discussion and debate about what the best of swimming for swimmers can look like, the better. It is in that spirit that we offer these thoughts on what the League might consider when it lists ‘where we might get better’.

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

Minna Atherton – World- record Roar With a Smile – Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

For this exercise, we use the following topic headings:

  1. Clock
  2. Format
  3. Press
  4. Promotion
  5. Results
  6. Team Drafts and Transfer Windows
  7. TV Production
  8. Venues

2020 Vision

  1. Outstanding questions
  2. Priorities for 2020

1. Clock

  • Listing times on the TV screen after races for more than a second
  • Live results should be easily accessible (not requiring a sign-up process that means the provider gains or is perceived to require access to data on the users computer)
  • List world records so non-swimming fans (the ones the sport is trying to reach before its fandom) know what each time means.
  • Provide incentive to breaking World Records
  • The world records set by Minna Atherton, Daiya Seto and Caeleb Dressel should have counted something towards MPV but the emphasis on ‘time doesn’t matter’ left organisers in a quandary: how to call a world record and celebrate it while rating the moment less that a skins win way off record a swimmer’s best pace.
  • Stage races that do not have the clock turned on. How about 3x500m or 4x200m swims spread through the meet for distance swimmers? These are accumulated swims. They’re in training. This much we know. World-record form is highly unlikely. So – be inventive and turn the clock off (it has to be on in the background of course: the human eye is just not as good as the digital pad … and long gone, for good reason, are the days when officials gave a thumbs up or down – and, as we know, got it wrong more times than they ought to have). Turning the clock off when two sprinters are split by 0.01sec means the audience can;’t see who won and wants to know: who won … AND BY HOW MUCH… There are occasions when that scenario is not important.
  • If and when the clock is on, it counts: the times of all competitors in each race need to be posted at the conclusion of each race, and not just for a split second. The times need to be displayed on the broadcast for a long enough period that the performances can be digested.
Foto Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse 21 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League. Nella foto: Energy Standard Photo Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse December 21, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League. In the picture: Energy Standard

Energy take the trophy – Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/Lapresse

2. Format

Teams and Meet numbers and frequency

  • A more consistent meet schedule, featuring meets each weekend, would generate a greater level of cohesion and interest – (but not over too long a period in any given year…)
  • An expansion of teams from eight to 12 would broaden the number of cities who were represented by a franchise (this is in the pipeline, with two new teams already announced).
  • A longer season (more meets) would allow teams who were hurt by absences of star athletes to make up for those absences with an extended campaign that place an emphasis on several meets, not just a handful of competitions.

Short-Course/ Long-Course

  • Long-course competition, in conjunction with short-course competition, would provide athletes the chance to showcase their skills over both formats. In two-day meets, perhaps the first day could be SCM, with the second day conducted in LCM.
  • Rotate format each year from short course to long course after next year (short course after Olympics, long course leading into Olympics)
  • Maybe SCM through December and then LCM through April. Having Long-Course Metres competitions might entice more people and would make things more unpredictable.
Foto Gian Mattia D'Alberto/LaPresse 21 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League. Nella foto: TITMUS Ariarne Photo Gian Mattia D'Alberto/LaPresse December 21, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League. In the picture: TITMUS Ariarne

Ariarne Titmus – Photo Courtesy: Gian Mattia D’Alberto/LaPresse

Surprise Events and Making Tactics Count

  • To create an element of surprise, a mystery event could be randomly selected for each meet and denoted as a double-point event. This setup would throw a wrinkle into the competition and could alter the dynamic of the meet.
  • To add a layer of coaching importance to the meets, each swimmer should be mandated to race at least twice. That way, all roster spots are given a boost in their value and athletes cannot be hidden.

Distance swimmers

  • Introduce events and inventive formats for distance swimmers, perhaps with a meet rotation element. It isn’t the fault of distance swimmers that their events take longer: its for organisers to find the formats that showcase the reason why the 1500m free final at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games was one of the most thrilling and anticipated events of the entire Games.
  • Smarter use of the pool: Lane 1-4 for skins, proceeding while a 500m race is going on as part of 3x500m challenge for 1500m swimmers in lanes 5-8… think about how to use the pool like track and field uses a stadium

Skins

  • Skins in all four strokes of the 50 to balance scoring and add excitement
ben-proud-florent-manaudou-

Ben Proud and Florent Manaudou get set to fire – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Pace of event

  • Space out races just a hair more so teammates will actually be in the box cheering each other on throughout the meet

Seeding

  • Seed races like a quad meet. (Ex: Lane 1. Cali Condors. Lane 2. Energy Standard. Lane 3. Cali Condors. Lane 4. Energy Standard; Lane 5. London Roar; Lane 6. LA Current. Lane 7. London Roar. Lane 8. LA Current) That way the best swimmer from the four teams will be in the middle of the pool. Would help exponentially with relays. These swimmers don’t get to race each other often so why rob them of that opportunity by spacing out the two best teams in lanes 1&2 and 7&8?

Relays

  • Only swim A relays, allowing relays to be swum at the same time as distance challenges.
  • As meets get added to the league, have a backstroke skins, breaststroke skins, and butterfly skins at other meets.
Foto Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse 20 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League Nella foto: Energy Standard Photo Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse December 20, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League In the picture: Energy Standard

Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

Team Drafts and Transfer Windows

  • To fill out the teams and generate a better balance between the teams, a draft could be held in place of the recruitment process that is currently in place.
  • Create a system where teams are able to gain the same amount of swimmers in each off season so Energy and London aren’t taking all the best people.
  • To ensure a more equal spread of elite talent, it would be beneficial to have some athletes assigned to a team, with the supporting cast filled in through a draft format. This approach would make sure each team had a go-to performer, or several.
Foto Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse 20 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League Nella foto: London Roar Photo Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse December 20, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League In the picture: London Roar

London Roar – Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

TV Production

  • Names superimposed over the lanes or listed in a corner of the screen would enhance the coverage of the relay events.
  • More bios and athlete history on TV – pre-filming would help to make the swimmers more recognisable  and interesting not just to fans but the wider audience needed if swimming is to grow.
  • Use ISO sky cam for replay only but if you are going to use that angle, limit it to four seconds so the viewer can still get a sense of where second place is and who is making a move, etc. Too many events were ruined because the camera was isolated on the leader and the viewer had no idea where second place was. Every point matters so every swimmer should be in frame.
Foto Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse 20 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League Nella foto: Cali Condors Photo Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse December 20, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League In the picture: Cali Condors

Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

Press

  • The media / PR has left a lot to be desired. Employing any PR company with no experience in mainstream media and / or swimming is a huge gamble. The League needs to take advice from the media on media matters and listen to the voices that could truly help.
  • There should be a proper Media Guide
  • There should be proper Event programs
  • There should be more inventive & well thought out media calls
  • Media releases need to speak beyond the core audience that doesn’t need to be told what skins and much else means. Use nerdy, niche terminology in the wider world and eyes glaze over.
  • Event results / coverage outside of swimming media outlets was all but non-existent. That needs to change and is a whole other discussion
  • The majority of the social media is well intentioned but it is blatantly obvious that it’s driven by people without a swimming or journalistic background – the storytelling is lacking & the race & highlights editing was for the most part second rate.
  • Work more closely with outside media to build coverage
  • Put much more effort into understanding what the mainstream needs and how it works
Foto Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse 20 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League Nella foto: LA Current Photo Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse December 20, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League In the picture: LA Current

La Current – Photo Courtesy: Fabio Ferrari/LaPresse

Promotion

  • Pay counts: not only would it help to relate what swimmers are actually getting paid but it would also help to note what teams are paying coaches and managers and provide a basic overview of financial structures of the new pro-swim era. This would not only be good for transparency but would be another peg on which to hang audience engagement. We know what the world’s leading golfers, tennis, football and basketball players get. The story of swimming’s growth also requires that we know how swimmers and the coaches and managers are benefitting from a new world that has, so far, been subsidised by an investor the sport is immensely lucky to have found in Konstantin Grigorishin. Subsidies have to subside to paying your own way and making profits that feed further development if ‘professional’ is going to be meant.
  • In Australia, the UFC uses a number system for its events rather than just focus on where the event is as in UFC243 etc – it’s easier for historical purposes especially when you return to many of the same venues every year – remember back at ISWIM4 when Minna Atherton broke the world record in Budapest + easier to use across social media #ISWIM4
  • Especially if the league expands & multiple meets are happening across the globe on the same weekend easy to distinguish & promote well in advance.
  • Journalists need to know well ahead of time exactly what swimmers are competing for their teams in each of the events. This is all the more essential in fast-moving format. If the media can’t follow what’s going and haven’t been able to prepare properly for what’s about to unfold, the outcome is clear: they simply won’t cover it.
  • Caeleb Dressel didn’t compete in Indianapolis but he did in Naples – Katie Ledecky competed in Indianapolis but not in Washington. The cultural shift is in its infancy: if the League season is going to be months long, professional swimmers and their coaches are going to have to factor that in to preparation for the big championship events and use the league as race test opportunities even if that means bypassing some more traditional events, such as state championships. This does change the nature of the sport but then you might ask when was the last time Messi, the Williams sisters, Hamilton, Woods and scores of others made anything but a guest/inspire appearance at a state or county championship?
  • That shift also then requires understanding from the League that a format that is ONLY short-course will fall shy of the needs of leading athletes and a two-worlds sport will develop, rising watering down both. This is a lesson that took FINA a long time to learn, at cost, its World Cup brimming with potential for many years but ultimately failing to win the support of the elite swimming community that consistently said ‘make it fit into out plans or we won’t be there’.
  • We know it’s an Olympic cycle but going forward: in a professional league, if you’ve signed with a team unless you’re injured or a family emergency you race for that team.
  • Team lists need to be clearly defined at the start of the season & named weeks in advance making the promotion & setup of the event, profile athletes / storytelling & create an actual event program.

AquacenturionsResults

  • A major brief for the ISL team should be the creation of an iswimleague app. Upload all the results, rankings, scores, programs, profiles, media guide – no need to print out programs at each event just check it out on your phone – watch the draft live – watch replays of each event, behind the scenes interviews, podcast, upload photos to go on the big screen, could even play trivia during the breaks to win prizes. The possibilities are endless but that’s a no brainer.
dc-trident-

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Venues

  • Having true ‘Home’ Meets
  • Better consideration and understanding of the geography of where swimming sells if you want bigger in-venue crowds and ticket sales. Otherwise, big moments turn into local galas in audience scale

2020 Vision

Priorities for 2020:

  1. Replace ISL WITH ISwimLeague
  2. Every team must have different colours
  3. Sydney, Tokyo, Brisbane, Beijing and so on: expansion targets
  4. The 2020 Draft needs to be professionally set up, undertaken and broadcast at the conclusion of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
  5. Employ a PR / MEDIA Pro outfit with news of mainstream media AND Swimming, with good links to swimming experts.
  6. Event: the format needs to go from thirds to just two halves the schedule is too busy
  7. Use the extra time for broadcast to increase the storytelling ability / welcome to set the scene explain calmly what is happening preview the action pre meet interviews / some post race simulcast interviews to mix it up & let the event breathe rather than just constantly racing.
  8. Simulcast some post race interviews with broadcast & venue – crowd has been treated for the most part like second class citizens – interaction isn’t good enough for people who are passionate about the sport & paying hard earned money for seats. Minna Atherton world record – no world record celebration graphic on the scoreboard – no interview for the crowd on pool deck until the event was over just a TV grab & straight onto the next race – there were some great initiatives in Dallas for the crowd like golden ticket allowing lucky spectators to come down on pool deck for a period & merchandise giveaways including team towels but in the breaks or pre game where’s the dance & kiss cam & throwing more merchandise into the crowd?
  9. The novelty of having a DJ on pool deck wears off quickly and in all honesty it just doesn’t work – the intro tracks for the athletes are more miss than hit – movie & TV show themes fall flat – the music in the venue during races is too much like a night club, loud & actually takes away from the action  happening in the water.
  10. DJ & his music during the breaks has absolutely no connection with the crowd – in fact in Budapest it totally destroyed what was an incredible atmosphere after Hungary’s two biggest stars in Katinka Hosszu & Kristof Milak both won their respective 200m butterfly races the locals were electric especially with the two skins races coming up to finish before a random 5 minute DJ set of nite club music sucked the oxygen out of building. Play mainstream popular music – your audience is families looking to have fun not a rave party.
  11. Change all relays to 4x50s – and there is where you might turn the clock off. Who cares?!
  12. Replace the IMs with Mystery Medleys – one of the real success stories of the Qantas Skins meets of the 90s in Sydney, Australia. Each lane has a “mystery draw” – the swimmer will not know until 30 mins before the race so they can get their heads around it: make a big build up, with TV and commentators in on the act.

The introduction of merchandising goods is in its infancy, the NY Breakers leading the way in what will be an important factor in the professionalisation of the League.

ny-breakers-holiday-gift-guideOutstanding questions

  • How will the ISL develop its role when it comes to promoting the teams?
  • The 2020 Draft: how to make the weaker teams stronger?
  • Will the League reward teams at the bottom of the league with first access to unsigned free agents (Irie, Paltrinieri) and/or higher “draft picks?” (Weitzeil, Louise Hansson)
    Will swimmers be able to switch teams?
  • Doping: blanket bans for all with a WADA Code infraction has been welcomed far and wide. What happens when the infraction is part of a common ban that recognises the damage of state-run cheating? What happens if a swimmer has no positive test to their name but is handed an infraction because of manipulation of a sample outside off the swimmers’ control?

What questions would you pose? 

What recommendations would you make?

3 comments

  1. avatar
    Sam

    You couldn’t have 4 lanes doing one race and 4 lanes doing another . The current commentators couldn’t cope with 8 lanes doing the same race .
    I think short course makes it more exciting and compact . Perhaps like the American college meets . I don’t think short course racing in November and December will affect long course in June and July negatively . Does depend if the racing goes into April .

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      Thanks Sam. Track and field commentators must and do cope with several things happening at once. I’m not sure if and how the concert would best work but I don’t think top-class professional commentators well briefed would struggle with skins events, interspersed with updates on a distance battle, no more than they should have the skills to call what’s going on across a pool of eight lanes in a single race.

  2. avatar
    Jake

    The piece on the TV production was PERFECT. The ISO sky cam was abused during competitions and we needed more information about the new faces in the competitive scene. The concept of the ISL was there, watching the season was cool, but it was tough to physically watch.