ISL London Summit Sees 30-Plus Elite Swimmers Gather

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Photo Courtesy: isl.global

More than 30 of the world’s top swimmers gathered in London yesterday to hear experts in law, labor relations, and business development lay out the steps to convert swimming into a more professional sport that would pay them competitive wages, unlock their market value, and enhance their rights. Among the elite swimmers gathered were Olympic champions Sarah Sjostrom, Adam Peaty, Katinka Hosszu, Ryan Murphy, Federica Pellegrini, Gregorio Paltrinieri, and Chad le Clos.

The two-day conference, held at Stamford Bridge, home of football giant Chelsea FC, is being hosted by the International Swimming League (ISL) and its founder, Konstantin Grigorishin. The conference’s aim is to both educate swimmers in the structure of professional sports and for ISL to listen to the swimmers’ ideas on necessary changes to ensure an equitable distribution of enormous World and Olympic events revenues.

“The monopoly run by FINA, the international swimming federation, is not only completely out of tune when it comes to the rights of athletes to earn a living from their work as elite swimmers but also is violating US and European laws,” said Ali Khan, ISL CEO.

FINA’s monopoly practices include rules and interpretations that lock athletes out of the decision-making process that impact swimmers’ lives. In response to FINA actions, swimmers decided to attend the London conference to consider forming a Professional Swimmers’ Association that would have a say in competitive and financial governance.

On hand to provide expertise alongside Konstantin Grigorishin yesterday were San Francisco lawyers Neil Goteiner and Daniel Cohn, of Farella Braun + Martel, who filed the California court cases, Rachel Aleks, Assistant Professor on Labour relations at Cornell University in New York, and ISL’s Technical Director Apostolis Tsagarakis.

This conference comes in the wake of FINA’s boycotting ISL in response to its plans to host the first series of professional team competitions in December 2018. FINA threatened national federations with blanket bans if they did not take action against any swimmers who competed at what was to have been a test event for the ISL format in Turin this week. After FINA’s threats forced the cancellation of that event, FINA announced last week that it would host a new “Champions’ Series” starting in March 2019, using many of the key elements of ISL’s planned format.

In doing so, FINA had “shamelessly copied” key aspects of “our vision for swimmers and swimming”, ISL organizers told swimmers in London yesterday. While ISL noted that FINA had blocked the idea of a team competition format that would pay the first wages to swimmers for global competition, this pressure was no more than a “temporary obstacle” to unlocking the true value of athletes.

FINA’s monopoly of swimming is being challenged by ISL and, in a separate class action, by three plaintiff swimmers in the antitrust case: triple Olympic champion Katinka Hosszu, of Hungary, and USA team members Michael Andrew and Tom Shields.

During the conference, Grigorishin told swimmers: “We can co-exist with FINA and respect each other if they understand that their role is that of a regulator of rules not people. And they need to understand that athletes deserve their fair share of all revenues they generate as the stars of swimming.”

Grigorishin pointed out that swimmers have far bigger challenges long-term, compared to overcoming FINA pressure, in raising their earning power in a competitive trillion-dollar global sports industry. “You are in the entertainment business, show business. And eventually you are competing against other entertainment properties, the likes of Netflix, for the short attention span of the global audience. That is your biggest challenge. Another challenge is technology and the exponential growth of e-sports. Swimming needs to catch up with the technological evolution to stay relevant with the young audience. This all requires swimming to find new exciting formats that engage far more people of all ages beyond its existing core fans.”

In that context, the aim of the London brainstorming session was to raise awareness among swimmers on many levels, including their own true market value, how to unlock it, and building professional representation.FINA currently shares less than ten per cent of its annual revenue with swimmers in prize money and offers no pension rights, insurance or other standard benefits. In contrast, ISL has not only pledged to share 50% of all revenues generated by its proposed series of team matches but has suggested to swimmers that they strive for accepting nothing less from any competition organisers.

Grigorishin pointed out that an athlete like Sarah Sjostrom might have expected, on theory and on the basis of IOC’s revenues for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, a pay day of many millions of dollars, not thousands. Sjostrom burst into laughter, while Peaty confirmed that for his medal haul at Rio 2016 he received no bonus money at all. His experience was typical of the majority of Olympic medal winners.

Other conference developments in London included athletes harshly criticising FINA for failing to consult with the swimmers over their plans to launch a Champions’ Series in 2019 using ISL’s format.

“FINA obviously had no honest objection to ISL’s innovations and calendar improvement, contrary to FINA’s public protests. FINA’s only reason for threatening swimmers and federations with Olympic and world championship bans was to eliminate ISL as a competitor,” said  Khan.

In response to FINA’s proposal for an event next year with $3.9m in prize money, Khan said: “This pivot is just FINA’s latest ploy to increase its profits and to undermine any competition within the swimming world, competition which would benefit athletes and increase their fan base. Notwithstanding FINA’s maneuver to morph into ISL, FINA remains the illegal monopolist which has fiercely prohibited swimmers from participating in meets which FINA perceives as challenging its absolute control over world-wide swimming.”

In support of its claim that FINA has cut and pasted its idea, ISL noted that FINA’s proposed distribution of prize money is “accurate to within one dollar of ISL’s 2017presentation to FINA”.

Moreover, said ISL, FINA’s proposed new 2019 team series conflicts with the schedule of many federations’ National Championships/Selection Trials for its own FINA 2019 World Championships. FINA’s copy-cat caper and calendar conflicts raise the question of whether FINA is serious about launching these additional events.

“Such blatant missteps threaten to further undermine ISL’s efforts to increase swimming’s marketability and its fan base,” says Ali Khan. “FINA’s gambit also shows why ISL had no choice but to file an antitrust suit against FINA in US federal district court in San Francisco last week. Instead of copying our ideas and format, we urge FINA to play fair and square and to allow swimmers and the marketplace to make
their own determinations about what is best for the sport.”

In explaining ISL’s bottom line, Khan said: “Our goal is to promote swimming, expand its fan base, and to create opportunities for swimmers and the sport as a whole. FINA’s apparent goal, by contrast, is to maintain an iron grip on its unlawful control of the sport at the expense of swimmers and any would-be competitors. ISL believes that both the courts and the sport will see FINA’s latest copy-cat efforts for what they are: a further effort to prevent competition.”

— The above press release was posted by Swimming World in conjunction with the International Swimming League. For press releases and advertising inquiries please contact Advertising@SwimmingWorld.com.

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