Sports·The Buzzer

The quirky International Swimming League, explained

CBC Sports' daily newsletter looks at an interesting pro-swimming startup that's about to launch its second season.

Flashy startup about to launch its second season

The ISL has a different look from traditional swimming meets. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

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Here's what you need to know right now from the world of sports:

The International Swimming League kicks off its second season tomorrow

If you're unfamiliar with the quirky indie circuit, here's how it works and what's different for year two:

What is it?

The ISL is a series of events for the world's best professional swimmers. But instead of representing their countries — like they would at the world championships, Olympics and other traditional meets — they compete for teams that can contain several different nationalities. Same as you'd see in, say, the NHL or WNBA.

That's not the only concept the ISL borrows from pro sports leagues. There's also a regular season followed by semifinals and a final to determine which team wins the season championship. Game presentation is big too. The ISL is going for a more modern, flashier look than we're used to from swimming. There's elaborate lighting, a live DJ, and the music keeps going during races. The only silence comes when swimmers settle into the starting blocks.

Once the gun goes off, you'll notice a bunch more differences. The pool is only 25 metres long — half the Olympic-standard size. 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 final, as the ISL likes to say. That's better for the athletes because they don't have to grind out morning preliminary swims and then return at night to race for medals, like they do at the worlds and Olympics. It's also better for fans because, frankly, heats are pretty boring.

Another difference is that times don't matter as much. Swimmers score points for their teams mostly based on what place they finish in. But there are rewards for posting a super-fast time and penalties if you're too slow.

The distances are familiar: individual races go 50, 100, 200 or 400 metres, and the relays are 4x100. Maybe the quirkiest thing the ISL offers is "skins" race. These start with eight swimmers, then the field is cut to four for the second round, then two.

Gender equality is one of the ISL's guiding principles. 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.

What's the point of it?

To make money, of course. The ISL's financial backer is a Ukrainian-Russian billionaire named Konstantin Grigorishin, who's betting a lot of his own money on the belief that there are enough swimming fans out there to sustain a pro league if it's done in an entertaining way.

Grigorishin said he was willing to spend $25 million US to get the ISL 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. So far, so good, it seems. The startup made it through its first year. That's more than you can say for the XFL (twice).

For the swimmers, the appeal is obvious. The ISL gives them a chance to be seen (and make money) beyond the small number of legacy high-profile events. The world championships are held two years apart, while the Summer Olympics and major regional meets like the Pan Pacific Championships come around only once every four years.

Back to 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. The ISL won athletes over partly by promising to split revenue 50/50 with them.

This season, every swimmer is being paid a base salary of $15,000, with the opportunity to make quite a bit more in bonuses. The way it worked last year was swimmers earned $1,000 for every meet they attended, plus $300 for every point they earned. The big carrot was reaching the four-team final meet in Las Vegas. Swimmers made $1,000 for every point they picked up there, and everyone on the championship team took home an extra $10,000. The runners-up got $5K each, third place $3K and fourth $1K. According to SwimSwam's calculations, top earner Sarah Sjostrom made a little under $140,000 after being named the season MVP. Finals MVP Caeleb Dressel was next at just shy of $99K. Everyone else was below $59K.

There's also an element of adventure for the athletes. They're part of something new, they get to compete with teammates for a change and, as a bonus, they're sticking it to the sport's old-school power brokers a bit. FINA felt threatened enough by the ISL to create its own "Champions Series" of meets featuring small, elite fields, no heats and big prize money.

The energetic, more youthful vibe of the ISL events also seemed to go over well with the athletes last year. Canada's Kelsey Wog called it "a really fun racing experience and a really fun atmosphere."

What are the big changes for this season?

The ISL expanded from eight to 10 teams. The originals are the U.S.-based NY Breakers, LA Current, DC Trident and Cali Condors and the European-based London Roar, Aqua Centurions (Italy), Energy Standard (France) and Iron (Hungary, and yes, just Iron). The newcomers are the Tokyo Frog Kings and the first Canadian-based club, the Toronto Titans.

Toronto, as you'd expect, has a bunch of Canadian swimmers. The headliners are two-time 100m backstroke world champion Kylie Masse and 2012 Olympic bronze medallist Brent Hayden, who launched a comeback last year at age 35 in hopes of making it to the Tokyo Olympics. Penny Oleksiak was on the Titans roster but decided not to compete this year.

The inaugural ISL season consisted of seven events held in various locations in Europe and the United States, capped by a grand playoff finale at a Las Vegas casino. This year, due to the pandemic, it's been cut to five meets, all held at the same pool in Budapest. The opener runs this Friday through Monday. The semifinals are Nov. 14-16 and the final Nov. 21-22. 

Where can you watch it?

CBC Sports has the Canadian streaming and broadcast rights for every ISL event. You can live stream all four sessions of the season opener — Friday from 10 a.m. to noon ET, Saturday 2-4 p.m., Sunday noon-2 p.m. and Monday 10-noon — at this link. Next week's coverage will also include a Saturday-afternoon broadcast on the CBC TV network. Read more about the new ISL season and all the Canadian swimmers involved in this piece by CBC Sports' Christine Rankin.

WATCH | CBC Sports previews new ISL season:

Toronto Titans head coach Byron MacDonald and Scott Russell of CBC Sports look ahead to the upcoming International Swimming League season. 7:01

Quickly...

Canada's winter university sports national championships are all cancelled. That announcement today from the U Sports governing body means there will be no titles awarded this school year in men's and women's basketball, hockey, swimming, track and field, volleyball and wrestling. Back in the summer, U Sports nixed six fall national championships, including the Vanier Cup football title game, because of the pandemic. This marks the first time in the modern history of U Sports (since 1961), that no national championships will be contested. Some 20,000 athletes and coaches from 56 schools are affected by the decision. Read more about what the U Sports cancellations mean in this piece by CBC Sports reporter (and former university soccer player) Signa Butler.

Daryl Morey is reportedly stepping down. One of the most creative executives in all of pro sports, Morey spent the last 13 seasons running the Houston Rockets. He made his biggest move in 2012 when he fleeced panicky Oklahoma City in a trade for James Harden, who blossomed into one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history and an MVP in Houston. The analytics-minded Morey also helped usher in the modern way of playing basketball (pace and space, plenty of three-pointers and layups, almost no mid-range shots), which is now fully embraced across the NBA. Unfortunately, despite winning a ton of regular season games, the Rockets never made the Finals under Morey. The closest they came was a heartbreaking loss to Golden State in Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference final, when Houston famously (and ironically) missed 27 three-point attempts in a row. Last year, Morey triggered an international incident when he tweeted support for anti-government protestors in Hong Kong. That angered the Chinese government and led to some businesses in that country cutting ties with the NBA. That cost the league quite a bit of money, and its response to China's reaction was criticized by some in the U.S. and abroad.

Quebec junior hockey is on hold. The QMJHL suspended play in both of its Quebec-based divisions until at least Oct. 28 because of coronavirus-related issues. Two teams had outbreaks last week after playing each other, with 18 members of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada testing positive along with eight from the Sherbrooke Phoenix. Also, six teams are located in areas the Quebec government has deemed "red zones," where organized sports are prohibited. Five of the six teams in the QMJHL's Maritimes Division will keep playing. The Moncton Wildcats are on hold for now because of New Brunswick government restrictions in their area.

And finally...

Happy anniversary to Wayne Gretzky's breaking the all-time scoring record. Thirty-one years ago today, the Great One tied and then beat Gordie Howe's mark of 1,850 career regular-season points. He did it during a game against the Edmonton Oilers, who had traded Gretzky to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988. No. 99 went on to add more than 1,000 points and still holds the record by a mile at 2,857. Howe is now fourth, behind Jaromir Jagr (1,921) and Mark Messier (1,887). Read more about Gretzky's record-breaking night and listen to a contemporary report on it in this piece by CBC Archives.

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