The International Swimming League (ISL) is swimming like you’ve never seen. A modern take on international competition that is structured like the NBA or NHL, the ISL showcases swimming with a lot of flash and an entertainment attitude that we aren’t used to experiencing in swimming. But don’t let the on-deck DJ or the nightclub lighting fool you, the ISL has the best swimmers from around the world and they’re breaking world records.
How does it work?
Instead of representing their nation, swimmers from all over the world are scouted and drafted into ten teams. The teams are primarily split between North America and Europe, with one team also representing Tokyo, and comprise of up to 32 athletes, equally split between men and women.
Just like other professional league sports, the teams compete in regular season matches with the top four teams ultimately advancing into a final. Matches happen over two days between four teams in a 25 metre pool and swimmers race for points. There are individual races from 50m to 400m, relays, and “skins” races which are an elimination-style multi-round race. The team with the most points win.
Funded by Ukrainian-Russian billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin, the ISL is now into its third season. It’s clear that the ISL is a business operation with the aim to position itself as a lucrative form of sports entertainment but, for the swimmers, the money is a welcome change.
While swimming enjoys its moment at the Olympics every four years, outside of that it, swimming remains relatively low profile. As recently retired professional swimmer Kendyl Stewart explains, “the conversation in the swimming world to date has been: if you’re aren’t an Olympic medalist, you aren’t anything, and there’s no opportunity to earn money so you kind of just have to be done swimming. If you want to make a living you either have to have another job or a sponsorship that pays you to swim but, because viewership is tied to the Olympics, it’s difficult to get those endorsements unless you have a medal. It’s a rich get richer scenario.”
The ISL offers every swimmer a base salary of $15,000 and many (equal) opportunities for financial bonuses based on both individual and team performance. Top performer Sarah Sjostrom took home $139,700 in 2019; Caleb Dressel took home $98,700 (2019). While most swimmers don’t make half as much as Dressel, it’s a positive change from the traditional system which made it extremely difficult for the majority of swimmers to stay in the sport and make a sustainable living.
Stewart, who competed in the ISL for the LA Current team in 2019 and 2020, is hopeful about the future of the league: “the ISL provides a new, interesting way to look at swimming. It’s encouraging because it’s creating a different way to look at the sport and providing new economic opportunities.”
What about the swimming?
Bring the world’s best swimmers to a pool to compete and of course the swimming is going to be good. “The fastest swimmers in the world are breaking records [at the ISL] and people are opting to swim in ISL instead of world cups,” Stewart says. During the ISL 2020 season, no less than nine world records were set. The high level of swimming “shows the potential of the league,” Stewart adds.
Moreover, for fans, as Stewart explains,“the skins races and the mixed relays are the newest things in swimming and it’s exciting.” Along with the fancy team swimming kit, the on-deck DJ, the strobe lights, and, at one event a special plexiglass-sided pool, Stewart guarantees, “it’s swimming you’ve never watched before.”
Where to watch
ISL Season three playoffs are scheduled to begin 11 November 2021. Stream via a subscription from ISL.global or check your local broadcaster.