CBC Explains

Can a pro swimming startup revolutionize the sport?

The newly launched International Swimming League is threatening to upend the sport’s traditional power structure — if it can survive.

Here's what you need to know about the new International Swimming League

Katie Ledecky is one of the stars competing in the new International Swimming League. (Gian Mattia D'Alberto/LaPresse via AP Images)

A new series of events for the world's best professional swimmers launched earlier this month, and it's threatening to upend the sport's traditional power structure — if it can survive. Here's what you need to know about the International Swimming League:

What is it?

The ISL is a set of seven events taking place in the United States and Europe over the next couple of months. The first two were held in Indianapolis and Naples, Italy. There are also stops in Dallas, Budapest, the Washington, D.C. area and London to close out the regular season before a grand playoff finale at a Las Vegas casino in late December.

The ultimate goal is to create a profitable circuit that gives pro swimmers a chance to be seen (and make money) outside of the relatively small number of legacy high-profile events. Those are the Olympics (held every four years), the world championships (every two) and major regional meets like the Pan Pacific Championships (every four).

The ISL's compact schedule takes place during a down time in the traditional swimming calendar. When it's done, athletes will have plenty of time to return to their national programs to get ready for their Olympic trials and, of course, the Tokyo Games next summer.

What makes it different?

For one, swimmers don't compete for their countries. It's more like, say, the NHL or NBA, where you'll find players of multiple nationalities on every squad.

The ISL has eight teams — four based in the United States, four in Europe. A total of four compete in each regular-season meet. At the first four meets, it's two U.S. and two European teams. Then comes a U.S.-only "derby" in Washington followed by a European derby in London. When that's all done, the top two U.S. teams and top two European teams in the standings face off in the final in Vegas.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

The American-based teams are called the New York Breakers, the Los Angeles Current, the D.C. Trident and the Cali (short for California) Condors. Some of the European teams are a little more oddly named. The London Roar is pretty normal by today's North American team-name conventions, but there's also the Aqua Centurions (based in Italy), Energy Standard (Turkey) and one called just Iron (Hungary). 

One of the ISL's big points of emphasis is gender equality. Teams have 12 men and 12 women in their starting lineups at each meet, and there are an equal number of men's and women's races. Each meet also has two mixed relays. Prize money is equal.

The ISL is also going for a more modern (flashier) presentation than we're used to from swimming. There's elaborate lighting, a live DJ, and the music keeps going during races. It's only silent when the swimmers settle into the starting blocks, right before the gun.

Is there anything different about the actual races?

Yeah, plenty. The first thing you'll notice is that the pool is only 25 metres long — half the length you're used to seeing at the Olympics or world championships. But the distances of the races are familiar: the individual ones are either 50, 100, 200 or 400 metres, and the relays are all 4x100.

Every race features two swimmers from each of the four teams competing in that meet — filling out all eight lanes of the pool. There are no heats. Every race is a one-off.

Another big difference is that times don't matter as much. The ISL even floated the idea of not having a clock at all, but the swimmers nixed it. So they're still timed, but what really counts is what place they finish in. That's how you score points for your team. The clock only really factors in if a swimmer fails to meet a pre-determined time in their race. In that case, their team loses points.

Maybe the quirkiest thing the ISL offers is a 50-metre "skins" race. It starts with eight swimmers, then the field is cut to four for the second round, then two. If you're interested in the details of how all the races work, the points system, etc., you can find those here.

Who's in this?

There were 25 different individual gold medallists at this year's swimming world championships. Fifteen of them are in the ISL. To name a few: perhaps the most famous swimmer in the world, Katie Ledecky of the U.S., competes for the D.C. Trident. The Cali Condors have American Caeleb Dressel, who won a combined seven individual and six relay gold medals at the last two world championships, and Canada's Kylie Masse — winner of the last two world titles in the 100m backstroke. Canadian Olympic hero Penny Oleskiak is on Energy Standard.

Canada's other reigning world champion, Maggie MacNeil, is not in the ISL. She competes for the University of Michigan, so joining a pro event would end her collegiate eligibility. Also absent is three-time Olympic (and 11-time world) champ Sun Yang of China. Interestingly, the ISL doesn't allow any swimmers who have been banned for doping. Sun served a three-month ban for a positive test in 2014.

If you like cheering for Canadians, Energy Standard might be your team. It has five. The New York Breakers have four Canadians, London has three and Cali has two.

What's in it for the athletes?

First off, money. Swimmers have complained for years that FINA, the sport's world governing body, keeps too much of the cash it makes off big events for itself — and, by extension, the sportocrats who run it. The ISL has a total prize budget of $5 million US, and it's also promised to split revenue 50/50 with the athletes.

Swimmers earn $1,000 for every meet they attend, plus $300 for every point they earn. The big carrot is reaching the final meet in Vegas. That's where the big payouts are. Swimmers make $1,000 for every point they earn there, and everyone on the championship team takes home $10,000. The runners-up walk away with $5K each, third place gets $3K and fourth gets $1K. That's on top of the appearance fees.

Also, fun. Athletes in niche sports always think their game could go mainstream if only the people in charge knew how to sell it. Swimmers are no different, and they've railed against what they see as the stale formats of their legacy events. At the world championships and Olympics, for example, they have to qualify through morning heats and semifinals to earn a spot in the finals at night. That's pretty draining for the athletes. And most fans (especially casual ones) really only care about the finals. In the ISL, every race is a final. And they all take place in a couple of two-hour blocks — one on the first day, one on the second. That's the whole meet. It's all very tight, which should also make it more appealing for broadcasters and TV audiences.

In the ISL, swimmers cheer on their teammates from poolside. (Gian Mattia D'Alberto/LaPresse via AP Images)

Who's paying for all this?

The ISL is backed by Konstantin Grigorishin, a Ukrainian-Russian billionaire who's clearly a big fan of swimming. He says he's willing to spend $25 million out of his own (deep) pockets to get this thing off the ground. But, like any pro sports league, the ISL's long-term survival will depend on attracting sponsors, selling tickets and signing substantial media-rights deals.

What do swimming's traditional power brokers think?

They're not thrilled, and they initially took aggressive measures to protect their monopoly. The ISL wanted to launch 10 months ago, but the inaugural meet was called off after FINA, which controls major competitions like the world championships and Olympics, threatened to ban any swimmers who took part. FINA also reportedly asked the ISL for $50 million over 10 years to allow it to operate. The governing body eventually gave in, but only after three swimmers sued it for anti-competitive practices.

FINA's next move was to start its own ISL-like event, called the Champions Swim Series. Only the top swimmers get invited, and they race only in four-person finals (no prelims). FINA put up a total of $3.9 million US in prize money for the series — the most it's ever offered for a single swimming event.

So who's the winner here?

The athletes, for sure. They went from having zero quirky series with substantial prize money to having two. Same for swimming fans. Between the ISL and the Champions Series, they now have 10 new meets worth watching. And the fact that FINA moved so quickly to create its own series suggests it can afford it. Seems like the creation of the ISL — and the pressure it put on the sport's powers that be — could end up being good for a lot of people.

But will it last?

Too early to tell. Early returns from the swimmers were good. They seemed to enjoy the newness of the first meet in Indy. Olesksiak said: "We're all learning to bond a little more because it's a very mixed team with people from, like, every country around the world almost. It's a good time." Canada's Kelsey Wog called it "a really fun racing experience and a really fun atmosphere."

But to survive long-term, the ISL will need fans. Attendance at the first meet wasn't great — 1,400 in a venue that seats 4,700. Media rights deals will be key too. ESPN acquired the U.S. rights, which is encouraging, but it's only showing meets on its streaming service — not its TV channels. The ISL also has a European rights deal, and separate ones in other parts of the world.

Where can Canadians watch?

CBC Sports has the Canadian rights and will stream every meet live on its webstie and app. The CBC TV network will show some events on tape delay starting later in October.

This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, the CBC Sports daily newsletter. Stay up to speed on what's happening in sports by subscribing below.