The Fast and Furious Frenzy of the ISL — And Its Feasible Fatal Flaws

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Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

The Fast and Furious Frenzy of the ISL — And Its Feasible Fatal Flaws

Swimming deserves a real professional league, and through two full seasons plus the start of a third with the International Swimming League (ISL), the benefits to the sport have been obvious. Elite swimmers have the opportunity to compete in a team setting, the format that former NCAA swimmers always miss in their post-college days.

And undoubtedly, the ISL is extending careers. Consider who has found a home in the ISL: of course, the best of the best like Caeleb Dressel and Sarah Sjostrom and many more, but also swimmers past their peak of winning Olympic medals and swimmers who are not among the top two in their country to be able to qualify for an Olympics. All of those swimmers can become important contributors on good ISL teams. Great swimmers who have not been able to fully translate their talents to long course can be superstars in the ISL, like the Cali Condors’ Beata Nelson and Coleman Stewart. Both were standouts in college swimming, at Wisconsin and NC State, respectively, and neither has qualified for any long course international teams, so the short course meters ISL has provided their opportunity to sustain professional careers.

The ISL gives all of these swimmers an opportunity to continue swimming and maximize their potential, while just a few years ago, the financial realities of attempting to make it as a non-superstar pro swimmer may have forced many of these individuals into retirement.

And the result has been exciting. ISL meets are fast paced and finals only, two hours of continuous racing. Ten heats of the 200 freestyle does not exactly entice fans to watch more swimming, so the ISL goes race to race to race, with a heavy focus on sprints, five relays mixed in and each meet ending with 50-meter skins competition, a three-round progression with each race separated by three minutes and half the swimmers eliminated after each round. It’s fun and exciting to watch, although obviously exhausting to participate in.

Meanwhile, the athletes clearly love swimming in the ISL, and the team camaraderie is real. On the ISL broadcast of Match #4, Cali Condors head coach Jeff Julian said: “We truly are a team. These guys love each other, even the ones who just joined this year, and you can feel it.”

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Caeleb Dressel and Tom Shields shake hands after Dressel touched out Shields in the men’s 100 fly during ISL Match #4 — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

And after winning four individual events and three relays at his first ISL match of the season, Caeleb Dressel seemed relaxed and exhilarated. It was a far cry from the exhausted, drained Dressel who just one month earlier expressed how badly he needed a break after winning five gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics.

“I didn’t know how I was going to react to this. I was swimming in the Olympics something like four weeks ago, so this is a pretty crazy situation to be in. The best way for me was to be with this Condor team. It really is special to be with them in the same boat, everyone getting back into shape, everyone finding their groove again,” Dressel said. “I was excited to race again, which was weird. I never thought in a million years I’d be in that situation, especially coming off a meet like that. I love the water. I love the sport.”

But the ISL has its issues, and they must be addressed. These are not concerns about the financial viability of the league, which has been called into question. Certainly, that issue bears watching going forward. But right now, that information is not available, so we are not going to speculate. No, the issues are in format, presentation and, of course, timing.

First, the season began four weeks after the Olympics ended — you know, the biggest swim meet in the world that only happens every four years – or five. And the ISL, for all of the hype (all its own) about being the future of swimming, is not on the level of importance for the world’s best swimmers as the Olympics and other summer long course championships. That’s just the status quo in swimming, and there’s no momentum for that to change anytime soon.

That timing of the season means that many of the world’s best swimmers are arriving to the five-week regular season in Naples, Italy, after minimal training and likely some vacation time after the Olympics. Some of them, at least. Other stars are not in Naples at all. ISL team rosters have been publicly available for months, but we weren’t exactly sure who would be in town until the start lists were released.

You cannot fault the athletes here. It’s only natural that many of them wanted a break after the crucible of Olympic preparation and the Olympics themselves. But if you’re trying to build a league and you cannot tell fans which of your star performers will actually be available for a particular meet, that’s not ideal. The blame here falls on the ISL for poor communication but also for the timing of these meets and not somehow making it worth their while for best swimmers in the world to show up. A league where the stars are sometimes-participants? That’s bush league.


How About Those Twists?

Last season, the ISL introduced the concept of jackpots, where event winners could steal away the points of swimmers who did not finish within a certain margin. The ISL also has standard times, which mean that swimmers who go slower than a certain time will receive deductions. The idea was to make sure that teams were not placing non-competitive swimmers into a race knowing that they would still receive back-end points and also to prevent swimmers from taking it easy with points guaranteed.

That makes sense, but the jackpots have exacerbated competitive inequities that are already very real within the ISL. We already know who the elite ISL teams are: Energy Standard won the 2019 league title, the Cali Condors were champions in 2020, and the other two teams qualifying for the final have, in both 2019 and 2020, been the London Roar and LA Current. The racing has become slightly more even this year, but there is still a clear spacing of the great teams from the middling teams to the lower-end teams.

So when Dressel and Lilly King and their Condors teammates are jackpotting a bunch of swimmers every time they race, Cali just becomes more unbeatable. The rich get richer when they were already pretty darn set to begin with.

In this week’s Match #4 in Naples, the Condors actually were challenged for the first time in years. The LA Current briefly held a lead after the final individual events of day one, and Cali only got back in front with excellent medley relay performances. On day two, Cali eventually extended its margin to 49.5 points going into the 50-meter skins, butterfly for women and freestyle for men.

After it was over, Cali led by 149.5 points. They gained one hundred points in skins.

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Kelsi Dahlia of the Cali Condors during the 2021 ISL season — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

In the women’s event, Kelsi Dahlia jackpotted all three of her challengers in the second round and then jackpotted her lone competitor, DC Trident’s Linnea Mack, in the final. On the ISL livestream, DC Trident GM Kaitlin Sandeno made clear her displeasure that Mack would not be earning points to show for her efforts. Then, Dressel and Justin Ress took both finals spots in the men’s skins, and just for good measure, Dressel jackpotted Ress in the final. So the winner of this match, as competitive as it seemed until midway through day two, was never really in question.

And with the jackpots, ISL racing becomes all about times – even though the ISL has made clear they hope to deemphasize times and make swimming about racing and placing. Get all that?

Meanwhile, new twists added for this year include checkpoints in 400-meter races, after 100 meters in the 400 free and after 200 meters (butterfly and backstroke legs) in the 400 IM. Swimmers touching first at those checkpoints get big point bonuses, not as large as the eventual race winners but still significant points. The presence of those checkpoints makes for interesting strategy, to see who is willing to take the risk and go out a little faster, but isn’t the point of longer races to see who is best over the entire distance?

The league already does not cater to swimmers who specialize in longer events since there is no 800 free or 1500 free — hey, it’s not the swimmers’ faults that those are their best events! Distance is just not considered that exciting, so the ISL skips it. But these new checkpoints hurt distance specialists even more.

In its purest form, swimming is about racing to the wall, seeing who is best over a particular distance, not part of a distance. You don’t need gadgets like checkpoints to make racing exciting. The ISL’s goal of “swimming reimagined” is worthy, but some elements of this reimagination are simply not true to the spirit of the sport.


The ISL and its Fans

On August 25, the ISL announced that select 2021 matches would air on CBS Sports platforms in the United States, and the rest would be livestreamed via an ISL subscription platform. That was one day before the first match of the season (not on television in the U.S.) would commence.

But the move to place the streams behind an independent paywall (rather than on a service included with most TV packages or an established streaming arm like CBS’s Paramount Plus) was shortsighted.

This season, the ISL has fashioned itself as “swimming’s new home,” and while the post-Olympics start to the season might not be great for the athletes, it was an opportune time to try to build the league’s fanbase. Instead, the move has alienated some potential viewers who simply are not interested in spending the cash beyond their existing cable or streaming investments. Unless someone was already a dedicated ISL fan, they might simply have chosen to pass on watching the non-televised matches.

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Head coach David Marsh and the LA Current have been second in both of their ISL appearances so far this season — Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu/ISL

If anything, the paywall pushes swimming fans farther away from the ISL. And as for the ISL’s stated goal of capturing a new batch of fans who are not yet interested in swimming (at least beyond the Olympics) and bringing swimming into the mainstream, forget about that if you have a paywall. There are too many other sporting options out there in the fall for those folks. And even some dedicated swimming fans are not engrossed in the ISL. The decision to go behind the new paywall feels like a quick cash-grab rather than a long-term commitment to the necessary-to-build base of support.

Heck, we did not even know what times the matches would begin until the day before the season started. That’s not good for anyone, certainly not the fans.

Obviously, the ISL has some very real and incredible positives going for it right now, and for the sake of the exciting racing and of those athletes competing and making a livelihood off the ISL, let’s hope it all works out for this league. But if it is going to grow and keep growing, there must be a fanbase. In the United States, American football reigns supreme among all sports, and since 2019, two upstart football leagues have shut down midway through their first season because of financial issues (although the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was a big factor in one of those abrupt closings). It takes years for sporting leagues to build up their fanbases and become entrenched and safe, and there’s no way the ISL should be considered at that point.

All the ISL’s bluster about being special does not make a league successful. All the bravado in the world does not make the league more relevant to longtime swimming fans, let alone attract new supporters to the sport. So despite the ISL’s early positive momentum in season three and its exciting presentation of swimming, there’s still a long way to go to ensure, long-term, that this league will succeed and thrive.

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Coach Jeff

    Outstanding piece; a well written and balanced critique.

  2. avatar
    Peter

    Very true, but a fantastic initiative that hopefully will continue and evolve like other franchise sports! 👏👏👏

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