Thanks to swimming’s best statistician, Barry Revzin, for compiling the numbers on this.
The newly-introduced Jackpot scoring had mixed reviews after the first weekend of competition in the 2020 International Swimming League season.
The most universal criticism was its application to the ‘skins’ racing, which allowed Lilly King and Ryan Murphy to overwhelm opponents, take their points, and take their money on match 1, though ultimately was much less impactful in match 2.
In terms of the non-skins races, some people liked it, some people thought the bar was too low, and some thought it was too confusing, though added CBS graphics for match 2 did help a little.
But we wanted to know what impact, if any, they ultimately had on the final team standings. And, ultimately, as expected, they didn’t change the final order of things, they just grew the gaps between the best teams and worst teams, as well as the best swimmers and worst swimmers.
The big takeaway here is that teams should do whatever they need to do to chase Jackpots. If that means pulling a swimmer out of events in order to give them a potential to win and jackpot another event, even if that means a weaker outcome in the first event, or a weaker outcome based on ‘non-jackpot’ placing, then teams should do so.
There were far more jackpots throughout the meets in the sprint events, where in spite of the margins being the same percentage, the actual time gaps are much smaller.
At this stage, there are really only minor changes that teams can make to try to capture this. But, this offseason, we’re going to see this play out in the recruiting process in a big way. Well, we won’t really see it play out, because the recruiting process is always kept so secretively, but athletes are going to find that, if there is a true free agency as was planned this offseason, swimmers who can win races and Jackpot points are worth whatever money is thrown at them, and the rest of the swimmers are all worth about the same. If you finish in 5th place and get your points Jacked, even if you beat the 8th place finisher by 3 seconds, you both scored exactly the same amount of points: 0.
The most brutal example of this is Joe Litchfield of the New York Breakers, who was good enough to qualify for the final of the men’s skins event in his race, but because he was Jacked by Ryan Murphy in the final, lost most of his potential points and money.
There was some reported concern within league management last year about the lack of “professional efforts” in certain races, thus instituting the Jackpot penalties, but even once they were instituted, the Jackpots happened with such regularity so as to make that justification a head-scratcher.
What we might see now is teams pulling 6th-place capable swimmers out of races and replacing them with 8th-place swimmers, saving the 6th-place capable swimmers for later events where they might get 4th. Don’t be surprised to see this come up, for example, in the women’s 50 breaststroke, where teams might pull good swimmers from the race, because they’re going to get Jackpotted by Lilly King anyway, and save them for the medley relays, which have such a huge implication in scoring because of the bonus choice of skins stroke.
Here’s the data:
Team Scoring in Real Life
- Cali Condors – 567
- Energy Standard – 463
- LA Current – 420
- New York Breakers – 266
Team Scoring if Jackpots Removed
- Cali Condors – 509
- Energy Standard – 470.5
- LA Current – 409.5
- New York Breakers – 326
MVP Scoring in Real Life
- Lilly King, CAC – 87.5
- Ryan Murphy, LAC – 74.5
- Sarah Sjostrom, ENS – 66.5
- Olivia Smoliga, CAC – 56.0
- Caeleb Dressel, CAC – 52.5
- Melanie Margalis, CAC – 52.0
- Ilya Shymanovich, ENS – 40.5
- Tom Shields, LAC – 40.0
- Beryl Gastaldello, LAC – 38.5
- Siobhan Haughey, ENS – 38.0
MVP Scoring if Jackpots Removed
- Sarah Sjostrom, ENS – 61.5
- Caeleb Dressel, CAC – 49.5
- Lilly King, CAC – 47.5
- Ryan Murphy, LAC – 45.5
- Beryl Gastaldello, LAC – 37.5
- Olivia Smoliga, CAC – 35.0
- Tom Shields, LAC – 34.0
- Melanie Margalis, CAC – 33.0
- Siobhan Haughey, ENS – 32.0
- Hali Flickinger, CAC – 31.0
Match Scoring in Real Life
- London Roar – 609.5
- Iron – 392.5
- DC Trident – 350
- Aqua Centurions – 344
Match Scoring if Jackpots Removed
- London Roar – 566.5
- Iron – 394.5
- DC Trident – 373
- Aqua Centurions – 359
MVP Scoring in Real Life
- Ranomi Kromowidjojo, IRO – 57.0
- Christian Diener, LON – 53.3
- Szebasztian Szabo, AQC – 49.5
- Kira Toussaint, LON – 47.5
- Marie Wattel, LON – 47.5
- Maria Kameneva, LON – 47.5
- Guilherme Guido, LON – 39.0
- Katinka Hosszu, IRO – 37.0
- Zach Apple, DCT – 34.5
- Linnea Mack, DCT – 33.0
MVP Scoring if Jackpots Removed
- Maria Kameneva, LON – 49.5
- Christian Diener, LON – 40.25
- Szebasztian Szabo, AQC – 38.5
- Marie Wattel, LON – 36.5
- Kira Toussaint, LON – 34.5
- Ranomi Kromowidjojo, IRO – 34.0
- Katinka Hosszu, IRO – 33.0
- Guilherme Guido, LON – 33.0
- Linnea Mack, DCT – 32.0
- Zach Apple, DCT – 31.5
Here’s the big takeaways:
- One, the team orders didn’t change, just their magnitudes. The winning teams distanced themselves, and the losing teams got further behind.
- Two, sprinters already had a big advantage in MVP scoring, but now even moreso because sprint points are being stolen at a much higher rate.
- And three, this just does even more to disrupt any sense of parity in the league.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge that, in general, the ISL format is much more fun to watch than most of what we’ve seen. Fewer gaps between races, a concept where the finish order matters beyond just the “medalists,” some motivation for team scoring – these things are all good for swimming.
But, in the first two seasons, almost every institution within the league dis-favors parity.
The fact that every swimmer was paid the same amount this season hurts parity, because swimmers have no motivation to sign with a weaker team for a higher guaranteed salary.
The fact that every athlete can sign with whatever team they want every season hurts parity.
The amount of extra money that can be made by being on the best team in the league, hurts parity – even moreso last year, where teams were able to recruit based on “yes, we’re paying you substantially less in salary, but the bonus for winning more-than-makes up for it.”
And now with the addition of Jackpot times, and the early impact that’s having, just the sense that the bad teams don’t really have a snowball’s chance of moving significantly up the rankings.
This could be a difference in the mentality between American sports and European sports, with most of ISL’s management being European-based. In American sports, most of the institutions are established to encourage parity. That includes things like salary caps and entering new athletes into leagues via a draft system that reverses the order of finish from the prior year, so the worst teams get to select the best new athletes.
Parity is crucial in American leagues, because without promotion and relegation systems that are so common in Europe, you’re asking cities to build billion-dollar stadiums, and often give those stadiums away, and so you need for them to have some promise that their team might be good and that those stadiums might be full one day.
In European leagues, while there are some mechanisms for parity, they are weaker. That’s why we generally see the same 6 teams at the top of the English Premier League year-in, year-out, with other teams having to take moon-shot chases for titles, before eventually settling back to the middle.
With promotion and relegation systems in place, which, by the way, I think are a lot of fun in principle, the English Premier League, the Italian volleyball league, and other such leagues are motivated to set up mega-teams that are definitely staying at the top, and that will have big followings regardless of where in the country they go.
Here’s the difference, though, and why the ISL, in my mind, should follow more of the American parity model:
There is only one professional swimming league.
In Europe, all of the best players don’t play in the EPL, or in the Russian Volleyball Super League, or in the Hungarian Orszagos Bajnoksag men’s water polo league. They’re split among leagues in different countries, so there’s some added value to stacking teams and having them progress to the European Champions League system and excel there.
Most of the world’s best basketball players play in the NBA. All of the world’s best football players are in the NFL. So the calculus is different, because if you don’t give the best athletes some incentive to hang around, even if they’re currently on a bad team, then you run the risk of a competing league emerging.
And that’s the problem that the ISL could face. Maybe not as much the risk of a ‘competing league,’ per se, but the risk of no longterm buy-in from second and third tier athletes who could go to FINA meets, or national meets, or simply retire from swimming and make more money than they will in the ISL.