“I think all of this confirms my hypothesis that the public is hungry for swimming,” said Konstantin Grigorishin, the Ukrainian businessman who is financing the venture.
The league is more than halfway through its first season, and in an interview this week, Grigorishin said he anticipated financial struggles out of the gate and is committed to expanding the ISL following the Tokyo Olympics next summer.
The ISL hits College Park, Md., this weekend, when a sellout crowd will see some of the world’s best swimmers compete in a two-day team competition. Four teams will compete featuring several Olympic medalists, including Caeleb Dressel, Natalie Coughlin and Matt Grevers.
One star who won’t be in attendance: Katie Ledecky, a cornerstone of the DC Trident team who grew up just down the road in Bethesda. Ledecky is focused on her training at Stanford, which has limited her participation in the league’s first season.
The ISL matches look and feel more like a college dual meet than the televised national or international competitions with which casual fans might be more familiar. The swimming takes place in a short-course pool, and the matches are fast-paced with no distances longer than 400 meters.
“The show that gets put on, it makes you feel like you’re at a professional sporting event,” said Dressel, one of the league’s biggest names and a top swimmer for the Cali Condors team, “the light show, the DJ, the music, the crowd.”
This weekend’s event is the league’s fifth stop and the third in the United States. There were some early hiccups, Grigorishin said, but he thinks the product has improved from week to week.
This year amounts to a trial balloon of sorts for the ISL. The league became official in January, announced its eight teams and schedule in June and held its first match six weeks ago in Indianapolis. The league moved so quickly out of the gate that potential sponsors already had allocated their budgets and many venues had been booked.
“We’re in the most tough financial stage. We’re investing the money,” Grigorishin said. “But how do you convince a sponsor to sponsor something that does not exist? Now we have a product.”
He is counting on a boost coming out of the Tokyo Olympics with hopes of starting the second season in September, adding two teams and staging 27 matches in all — 20 more than this year — with a championship slated for the following April.
After some public bickering last year with FINA, swimming’s international governing body, the ISL launched with the promise of creating more opportunities for swimmers, possibly extending careers and growing the sport. The league anticipates distributing more than $4 million to athletes this season. Thus far, more than 130 have earned at least $1,000 in prize money, and 16 swimmers have earned $10,000 or more.
The ISL launched during a slow period in the swimming calendar and signed up many of the sport’s top talents — more than 100 Olympians, including 41 gold medalists from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
“The pro athletes don’t have much of an opportunity to race during these fall months,” said Lilly King, the gold medal-winning breaststroker from the Rio Games who turned professional this year, “so it’s been nice being able to get up and go race early in the season and get some money doing it.”
The ISL hasn’t attracted big crowds, but it also hasn’t been able to host events in large venues. According to the league, the initial event in Indianapolis last month drew between 700 and 1,000 people each day. An event in the Dallas area saw a sellout crowd of 1,000 fans. The matches in Naples were near-capacity with 1,600 in attendance, and the event in Budapest sold around 2,200 tickets each day. Organizers expect a capacity crowd of 1,000 fans Saturday and Sunday at the Natatorium at Eppley Recreation Center in College Park.
While the swimmers aren’t necessarily in peak condition in November, the ISL has still seen some exciting performances. Australia’s Minna Atherton set a world short-course record in the 100-meter backstroke (54.89 seconds) last month, and Ledecky set an American short-course record in the 400-meter freestyle (3:54.06) in Indianapolis. Most of the sport’s biggest stars have wowed ISL crowds, including Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu (Team Iron), a three-time Olympic gold medalist; Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström (Energy Standard), who tops the ISL money list with $31,400, according to the site swimswam.com; and Great Britain’s Adam Peaty (London Roar), the world record holder in both the 50- and 100-meter breaststroke.
Ledecky has called the league a turning point for the sport, and others, such as King and Peaty, have said the ISL represents the future for swimming. But it also could change training habits and impact performances.
“If it grows into what we believe it can be, it is going to totally change the way swimmers train,” King said. “Normally, we’re such a training-driven sport, where it’s normally train, train, train for maybe two big meets a year. Now it’s more like a league like MLB or NFL, where you’re racing every weekend. So it’s definitely going to impact training. We’ll see if that’s a positive or a negative.”
For now, it complements the training for many of the swimmers. Dressel, for example, probably will have a busy program at the Tokyo Olympics, where he could take aim at eight medals. This weekend, he could find himself competing in that same number of events over a two-day period.
“A good reason to do the league was that it fit my training schedule very well, having these meets to break up the heavy training cycle and get some racing done,” he said. “It’s been really cool to see it come to life, from hearing about it as a start-up to now where it’s not just up and running — it’s running very well.”