Examining the ISL’s “Wealth Gap” Between Top & Bottom Teams

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.

rank name team points indiv relay skins mvp team_bonus total stolen
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.

Leave a Reply

Notify of
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 months ago

American sports is pure socialism 🙂 Salary caps and drafts. Why not let the best players play at the best clubs? And why not introduce relegation, it adds excitement 🙂

Reply to  Kim
2 months ago

I can’t imagine a more painfully boring league setup. Imagine making 20 teams cannon fodder and thinking it’s exciting.

Irish Ringer
Reply to  Kim
2 months ago

Perhaps a bit of socialism if you look at it that way, but helps bring parity between the teams. If the top 4-5 teams out of the 30 in the NBA loaded up on the elite players with no caps/restrictions, the other 24/25 teams would have a hard time bringing in fans, advertising, selling merchandise, etc. There’s also revenue sharing within the leagues for tv, merchandising and licensing rights to try to level the field a bit.

With that being said they can still load up on 2-3 top flight players, but have to try and fill a roster around them or pay a luxury tax if they exceed the salary cap.

As Braden mentioned, we are a ways off… Read more »

2 months ago

As if all this 2020 $ has been paid by teams or ISL. LoL.

2 months ago

I guess my fundamental question continues to be: is the ISL a financially viable company/institution? Or, is it viable only so long as funding is available, regardless of profits or losses.

Ol' Longhorn
2 months ago

It’s viable as long as the oligarch dude is interested in it.

Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
2 months ago

A person who is not allowed into the USA….that is who is willing to back the league

2 months ago

ISL is fast losing its status as the great hope. The concept is fantastic however the reality is that it’s still a very long way from becoming a sustainable business model that will deliver benefits to the competitors in ALL teams.

Last edited 2 months ago by Mike
Ol' Longhorn
2 months ago

Earned does not equal paid.

2 months ago

The comparisons with soccer or football seem pretty limited since swimming is a fondamentally individual sport with time based performances, there’s little to no actual impact of the coach’s strategies to the swimmers’ performances on D Day (given that the coach isn’t an idiot and doesn’t send Dressel on a 200m breastroke or Peaty on back/freestyle events only). In the end having an outstanding swimmer is enough to guarantee you a number of victoires, whereas in socccer/football it really isn’t.

One way to counterbalance that effect would be to have a system to dispatch the biggest scorers of the League into lower rankings teams. Something like top 20 of the league get sent to some teams (e.g : N°1 to… Read more »

Last edited 2 months ago by CasualSwimmer
2 months ago

I think a great storyline (that the ISL needs) is one of these lower-tier teams upsetting a higher-tier team and placing into the finals… everyone loves an underdog. At least right now, I think it’s unlikely but time will tell.

Olympic Roster
Reply to  Braden Keith
2 months ago

FIS and IBU (the skiing and biathlon federations) organise season long world cups in primarily individual sports ( there’s also relays and team events), These competitions are highly esteemed and successful. ISL and its flashing effects, strobe lights short course nonsense is to be blamed on FINA’s inability to organise an engaging attractive world cup series or league or whatever you’d call it…

Corn Pop
Reply to  Olympic Roster
2 months ago

A bunch of Norwegian asthmatics battling their affliction across the snow fields .Everyone is simply amazed people who cannot breathe standing still can do this stuff. Some even stop & shoot stuff & off again .
I admit I do watch it because its very cooling mentally when its 40′.C here . I like to watch the original Titanic too . Very refreshing .

I have not seen any ISL yet . I might if it was outdoors in the snow like ice swimming . I also love the Orthodox Ephiphany clips !

Last edited 2 months ago by Corn Pop
2 months ago

Is the money disproportionately earned by the *team*, or by the *stars*? i.e. I bet the earnings of the lowest 10 swimmers on the richest team are pretty close to the earnings of the lowest 10 swimmers on the poorest teams.

Reply to  Swammer
2 months ago

You would lose that bet handily.

If we assume that teams evenly distribute the team bonuses (the money you get for finishing top 3 in a match, or overall placement in a season), then the lowest earner on Cali was Tomas Peribonio ($6,687.50) and the 10th lowest earner on Cali was Mark Szaranek ($16,987.50).

The 14 lowest earners on Aqua combined earned $6,600. Seven of them earned $0. Only three people on Aqua (out of 30) earned more than Szaranek (Szebasztian Szabo at $40,400, Alessandro Miressi at $18,200, and Nicolo Martinenghi at $17,600).

Irish Ringer
2 months ago

Agree, trying to think of a pro sports league that follows a revenue sharing model within a team?

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

Read More »