With the inaugural season of the International Swimming League now more than half over, some industry experts are asking: Who cares?
The swimmers may, but apparently not many others.
“The competing athletes love it, and why not,” reports The Sports Examiner. “They’re the stars of a heavily produced television show, are being paid fairly well by swimming standards and are part of a team concept [that] is all new to swimmers who have not been part of American collegiate teams.”
The ISL began in October with a series of around-the-world competitions featuring more than 200 of the world’s best swimmers, culminating in December at a custom-built pool at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino is Las Vegas. The league is funded by Ukrainian billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin, and eight multinational teams — four from the United States and four from Europe — are competing in the season’s seven meets.
League announcements promised more than $4 million in appearance and prize money. But, according to The Sports Examiner, the league appears to be swimming upstream. As the site reports:
- The meets, which are produced primarily for television, show no sponsors on any signage anywhere. In fact, there is no evidence of any sponsors of the circuit at all: no signage, no mentions, nothing.
- The very attractive graphics package used for television at each meet — not visible in the arenas themselves — obscure the stands, and for good reason. Further, the lighting is only on the pool and surrounding deck, making it hard to follow who is leading in the tighter races.
- The attendance has been, to be charitable, modest. There were only a few hundred in the stands for both days of the Indianapolis and Dallas-area meets in the U.S. and 1,500-2,500 at most per session at the Naples [Italy] and Budapest [Hungary] meets. Let’s remember that this is a short-course program, using 25-meter pools, and the spectator seating is limited to the areas directly overlooking the competition pool itself. Thus the 5,000-seat Duna Arena in Budapest could only hold about half that number with seating confined to the 25-meter pool length.
- The television programs have been well produced, with sympathetic and overheated announcing, with veteran U.S. broadcaster Bernie Guenther doing most of the play-by-play. Following the ISL concept of team competition, times are completely de-emphasized, and there are mostly uninteresting interviews with the team coaches and post-race comments from the winners, many of whom are still panting after just finishing their swims.
- Media coverage outside of the swimming-specific sites has also been modest. In the U.S., the excellent swimming news sites such as SwimmingWorldMagazine.com and SwimSwam.com both have covered the circuit with the same ferocity as they do college swimming, with blanket, session-by-session report. But elsewhere? Not much.
Complicating matters — and quelling some of the excitement surrounding races — is the fact that FINA (swimming’s international governing body) is only recognizing world-record times from some ISL meets.
“I think all times should count, if we’re following all the rules, which we are,” Katie Ledecky, an ISL competitor and five-time Olympic gold medalist, told the Indianapolis Star. “We’re following them in terms of suits and doping control and all of those little things. I think all times should count. It’s the way it should be.”
It’s worth noting that USA Swimming is recognizing American records set during ISL meets.
“Perhaps this can be chalked up to a new league, with the expected growing pains of its first meets,” wrote The Sports Examiner’s editor Rich Perelman, describing the disappointing arc of the ISL. “But it was introduced as ‘a groundbreaking global professional team competition launching in 2019 that is set to revolutionize the sport of swimming.’ And it is so unimportant to the very swimmers who are the heart of the program that the team coaches have to arrange their meet entries around what’s really important: training for the 2020 season and the Olympic Games in Tokyo.”