The International Swimming League’s inaugural 2019 season was innovative. Anybody who’s followed swimming for more than 10 minutes and who has watched an ISL meet can catch that with the naked eyeball. But, now that the season has concluded, we wanted to sit down and reflect upon what exactly the most significant of those innovations were.
A large majority of those innovations came, quite simply, from the significant level of resources available to the league. Other groups have tried team-based meets and leagues before, and other groups have tried to improve the show, but never with the $50 million + investment that has been made by the league’s organizer Konstantin Grigorishin in year 1.
Others have been made by creativity – in some cases, the creativity borne by bringing in outsiders to the sport, who maybe don’t fully understand swimming, but fully understand “the nature of the show” and quickly learned the sport.
Below, we’ve listed our favorite innovations to the league’s inaugural season, as well as a few challenges that will have to be addressed for the league to hold our interests:
- The acrylic sidewalls at the Las Vegas finale were, easily, the most creative and coolest innovation. This in essence allowed us to watch the athletes above and below the water at the same time. This will take a little more jerryrigging and engineering to work at a full-time pool, but hopefully ISL figures out a way to continue this for the entire 2020-2021 season. It would also make on-deck officiating a real game changer – harder to hide those extra dolphin kicks on your pullout if the officials have a side-view.
- The On-Deck DJ was a game-changer for the vibe of the meet. It probably wasn’t as obvious on TV, but this DJ (who is some kind of world scratching champion) kept the fans engaged between races. Other meets have had DJs before (including the most popular DJ Spotify Playlist), but never on deck, never front-and-center, never this qualified, and never as an integral part of the show. Combined with the lights, these effects, new to swimming but old tropes in the ‘party’ world, kept the fans engaged – and that engagement certainly translates the scene to TV indirectly.
- SkyCams have been used in other sports (most prominently football) for years to give television viewers a smooth angle from directly above the action that we couldn’t get otherwise. This made for some great (and challenging, but more on that later) television shots.
- Pace of the races – 2 to 3 minutes between races. Perfect. Self-explanatory, and perfect.
- Same Lanes Throughout the Session – Some people hated this, some people loved it. Personally, we really enjoyed it, as it made the team race that ISL is pushing so hard much, much easier to follow. One improvement we’d love here: randomize the lanes on day 1, as they’re doing, and then put the top 2 teams from day 1 in the middle lanes on day 2. Maybe this is less relevant when the meets are more competitive (often in season 1, by day 2, the top 2 teams became clear), but seeing those teams side-by-side, center stage, would add even more intensity from a viewer experience.
- I could write a dissertation on this, but in short, the League Needs Better Balancing. The teams that were going to the finals were never in doubt, though we did get a thrilling final. Recruitment was, almost, a free-for-all in year 1, with some protections giving teams the first crack at home-country athletes. A balanced league wasn’t really a priority in year 1 – in year 1, the ISL needed to put on a great show to sell sponsorships for year 2, and by stacking teams, they wound up with a greater number of swimming superstars in the finale than they would have in a more balanced league. But, as the league moves into years 2 and 3 and 4, a more balanced league will result in a better product. This has been borne out in every major sports league in history – parity matters.
- The Media Setup at meets left a lot to be desired. There were improvements as the season went on, but it was a struggle at times. That’s our problem, and not yours, though.
- The league has emphasized team scoring as being infinitely more important than times, but they have not necessarily made it easy for the audience to follow the team battle. Showing the points-per-team-per-race after each event was helpful, but the scores should always be on the screen (watch any NBA, NFL, MLB, Premier League match, and you’ll see this). Even us, as SwimSwam, with 8 or more sets of eyes watching the event, were often in a scramble to figure out the team scores at any given moment during the meet. Along the same lines, camera angles often made it a challenge to follow team battles: in spite of the rhetoric, the cameras frequently zoned in on the race leader, without enough space around the leader for context.
- The ‘Skins’ scoring is out of whack, which Energy Standard knew earlier in the season than everyone else, and took advantage of: coming back from deficits to win 3 of their 4 meets via skins racing. The scoring system is already heavily slanted toward sprinters, which I think everyone is generally ok with, and yes the skins are the big meet-ender and as such maybe should be worth more points, but the fact that a team could outscore an opponent 96-6 in the skins races alone is too big of a swing. That London was the better team all day long and then lost because their guys went 5-6 in the skins race instead of 4-8 they lost made for an exciting finish, but wasn’t really in the greatest interest of fairness and balance. That’s especially true given that the skins finals were almost never competitive, leaving the climax of the meets in prelims of the skins races, rather than finals of the skins races.
- Horse Race Timing would be cool. What I mean by that is, sometimes it was a real challenge to know where each team was in each race. While we’re all going to have to accept to some degree that the ISL might never give us the full timing that we want, I’d love to see a ‘live placing’ system in races, similar to what is used at the Kentucky Derby. Figure out a way to track swimmers’ positions, and at the bottom of the screen, always show us the current order in a race. Not just at walls, but at every point in the pool. I think this would add a lot to the team battles when camera angles make it hard to know who is in which place.
- The Finale should have been in Europe. One of our readers presented a good reason for it to be in Las Vegas, which is that gambling is probably crucial to the long-term financial success of the league, but to have the smallest crowd of the season in the championship match was hard to watch, especially given that a 12,000 seat arena was rented out for 10 days to do it. Europe has generally been more excited about this league than the US, selling out bigger pools than the Americans have, and Europe has bigger pools than the 3,800 capacity that Mandalay Bay was reduced to for the meet with a temporary pool. In the US, swimming is still very much a “youth fandom” sport. Parents weren’t ever likely to take their kids to Las Vegas the weekend before Christmas for a swim meet, even a really cool swim meet.