This week, the International Swimming League moves into the second phase of its recruiting cycle, a 30-day free agency period.
With teams having between 20 and 27 swimmers on their rosters after a period of retaining top swimmers and drafting more, this free agency period will likely only make incremental changes in teams’ fortune for the next season.
These ‘open recruiting’ periods always tend to benefit the better teams in the league, because of the amount of money available to the athletes on the most successful teams. While the league did hold a draft this season in an attempt to balance teams, the top 4 teams that were the top 4 teams in the first two seasons are still likely to be the top 4 teams at the end of the season, in some order.
While the draft made overtures of trying to seek ‘parity,’ the league is still set up in essentially a European model where there are ‘wealthy’ clubs, ‘poor’ clubs, and a huge gap in between them. As a demonstration of this, in the 2020 season, the top team in the ISL, the Cali Condors, distributed more than $1.4 million dollars to its athletes. That’s as compared to the last team in the league, the Aquacenturions, who distributed only $158,600 to its athletes in prize money. That’s a gap of almost 10-times the payout – and not because the Condors are pulling in tons of revenue due to their popularity, but because they were simply the better team. At present, all money is paid to athletes via the league.
|1||Cali Condors||CAC||3,207.80||$ 457,800||$ 131,200||$ 112,800||$ 313,000||$ 443,000||$ 1,457,800||$ 7,400|
|2||Energy Standard||ENS||3,110.00||$ 410,533||$ 179,200||$ 97,000||$ 142,000||$ 326,800||$ 1,155,533||$ 1,800|
|3||LA Current||LAC||2,535.80||$ 300,500||$ 121,600||$ 80,200||$ 199,000||$ 183,800||$ 885,100||$ 8,400|
|4||London Roar||LON||2,725.00||$ 331,400||$ 120,800||$ 95,400||$ 23,000||$ 241,200||$ 811,800||$ –|
|5||Team Iron||IRO||1,912.00||$ 212,633||$ 23,200||$ 44,400||$ 44,000||$ 127,800||$ 452,033||$ 3,800|
|6||Tokyo Frog Kings||TOK||2,107.20||$ 252,333||$ 45,200||$ 22,400||$ –||$ 112,800||$ 432,733||$ –|
|7||Toronto Titans||TOR||1,775.00||$ 175,400||$ 70,400||$ 21,000||$ –||$ 69,200||$ 336,000||$ 800|
|8||NY Breakers||NYB||1,509.00||$ 158,400||$ 14,800||$ 9,600||$ –||$ 42,400||$ 225,200||$ 1,200|
|9||DC Trident||DCT||1,145.80||$ 93,000||$ 37,600||$ 11,600||$ –||$ 21,200||$ 163,400||$ –|
|10||Aqua Centurions||AQC||1,110.50||$ 104,000||$ 36,000||$ 9,600||$ 9,000||$ –||$ 158,600||$ 400|
These numbers exclude the solidarity payments. All athletes were given the same solidarity payment, though to varying degrees in the first three seasons, certain stars have been given extra ‘ambassador’ money by the league to encourage their participation (which, again, heavily favors the top teams, which have most of the big stars).
The origins of the dominance of the top teams is through not fault of their own. Prior to the full expansion of the league, there was an annual four-team meet of a similar format. The four teams that lead the league are borne out of that four team format – meaning that in the first open recruitment period, they already had relationships built, teams built, and groups of athletes who wanted to be on teams together because they were friends or college teammates.
While the ISL hasn’t publicly released prize money for the 2021 season, the truest analysis of whether the league’s draft plans created more parity will be whether or not the financial gaps close. Until the financial gaps close, the best athletes will continue to have every incentive to stay on the best teams, and no real parity will be reached in the league.
There are a few ways to further close these gaps, all with different strengths and weaknesses. One would be a total blowup of team rosters – something that thus far, the league has not been willing to do. That might look something like only allowing teams to retain 5 athletes, and then re-drafting.
Another option would be to change athletes’ incentives. While uniform salaries paints a picture of solidarity (and makes recruitment less of a headache), allowing athletes to negotiate for higher salaries could convince a star to go swim for a weaker team.
In European leagues, notably the English Premier League in soccer, there are some limitations on teams’ spending. But, generally, there’s not much effort to force the richest teams like Manchester United and Liverpool and Manchester City into a level playing field.
We see this in American sports in baseball to some extent. Though there are still more controls there via luxury taxes, the richest teams can buy the best players. The NFL salary cap is the tightest in terms of forcing parity, while the NHL and NBA fall somewhere in the middle. This is a little bit of a different mechanism, because it’s a matter of salaries rather than the ISL’s financial bonus reward system, but the outcome is ultimately the same.
Even in those European leagues, though, there is an ability for a team through deft coaching and a golden generation of youth to make a burst into the top of the table. As the ISL exists now, that’s not really possible, given the lack of long-term contracts and the short season to do any major athlete development.
The ultimate hurdle is the fear that many of the athletes don’t want to be told where to swim. This is talked about behind closed doors, but not publicly. The concern that if athletes don’t get to pair with their training partners, romantic partners, or coaches, that they might opt out of the league all together. I don’t think that fear by league runners is unjustified, but it is something that needs to be conquered for the league to succeed. There just aren’t enough ‘lucky bounces’ or ‘brilliant tactics’ or ‘hot streaks’ for the league to ever become competitive otherwise. On their best day last season, Aqua wasn’t going to come within 200 points of the Cali Condors on Cali’s worst day.
So here’s to hoping that the league continues to work on closing this gap, so that the excitement of the show that ISL puts on carries over into more excitement on the scoreboards. And let’s hope they get it figured out before the honeypot runs dry.