Jackpots: Do They Matter?

I have probably been the biggest opponent of jackpots, since before the rules even referred to them as jackpots. When I first learned about it, I sent what could best be described as a small novel to several people as a diatribe against it. I have always really disliked this rule.

And while it’s not an outcome I anticipated, jackpots have ultimately proven not to alter the overall outcome of a match, and have simply just added a layer of confusion to each event.

Prior to discovering this, my reasons for opposing jackpots were three-fold:

First, it could make the rich richer. A 10-point individual win vs a 9-point individual win (i.e. jackpotting just the 8th place swimmer) isn’t that big a deal, but if you can jackpot the bottom four swimmers, that’s 19 points – more than two individual wins. Jackpot the bottom six swimmers, and that’s suddenly 30 points, more than three individual wins. But there are only so many swimmers in the league that are capable of scoring such a large jackpot. While every match will have some eighth place swimmer in an off event that won’t even make the cutoff time (it’s hard to field a full lineup with only 12 individual swimmers allowed), the 5th place athlete in any given race is going to be pretty good … and beating that person by a large enough margin is very hard to do. With so few people able to steal large points, that could negatively affect parity in the league.

Second, it could add a lot more variance to matches, in a way that doesn’t seem helpful. Close races tend to have small point swings. Out-touching someone for first in an individual event is a 4pt swing. But if you have two strong swimmers in an event, it could be the case that either could win a large jackpot, and now suddenly you could easily have a 20 point swing in a close race. That just seems like too much skew. In Match 5, for instance, Toronto beat LA in the women’s freestyle relay – but both were well ahead of the field, and as a result this was a 48-point swing for Toronto (in a match they won by 83.5).

Third, it could significantly decrease the value of having more depth. Of course, every team will always want a Caeleb Dressel or a Sarah Sjostrom or a Siobhan Haughey. But if you always went 1-8 in every event, that’s still not enough. You need the depth too. And having somebody that could maybe get 5th or 6th reliably in a few events would still be a very valuable team contributor. Unless they always get jackpotted. And then suddenly the depth doesn’t matter as much or at all, which makes team building all about the stars and less about the team.

I thought these were all fairly good reasons to oppose jackpots, and we did see some of these happen time after time. For instance, there have been 89 individual jackpots larger than 6 points so far. Of those, 27 were by the Cali Condors and 14 by Energy Standard… as compared to only 1 each by the Toronto Titans and the DC Trident. There are some events where choosing athletes to swim feels like a hopeless endeavor because so few people can even score points. The most competitive events last season, in terms of how many swimmers could score against the top time in the league, were the 100 Freestyles (where 34 women could score against Siobhan Haughey and 29 men could score against Caeleb Dressel). On the extreme other end, only one man could score against Dressel in the 100 IM (Marcin Cieslak, who was also on Cali) and only five could score against him in the 100 fly. For lots of events, that number ranged from 12 to 18. This season, only six men (on only four other teams) could score against Coleman Stewart‘s world record in the 100 back.

And yet, when I looked at the numbers, one extremely surprising fact jumped out at me.

In not a single match in either season 2 or season 3 so far (totaling 19 matches) did the jackpots have any effect on the results. By no effect, I don’t mean just that they didn’t affect which team won the match. I mean the full placing of each of the four teams in the match. All 19 matches so far would have had exactly the same results without a jackpot rule.

Now, there would have been some changes, particularly in the MVP results. In 7 of those 19 matches, the MVP would have changed if the jackpot rule was removed. Those 7 are:

I still am surprised that there would not have been any change in placing, but seeing Caeleb Dressel in a context where he benefits from not having a jackpot is honestly even more surprising.

They would also change the rank ordering of teams in terms of their average scoring. Barely. Currently, the Aqua Centurions (399.2 pts/match) is 6th in average score, just ahead of Team Iron (389.8 pts/match). Without jackpots, those two teams flip ordering — and both increase their average score (Iron to 422.8 and Aqua to 416.5). But the other 8 teams would stay in exactly the same order. Although they would become closer. With the jackpots, Cali (593.2) is decently ahead of Energy Standard (576.0) who is quite a bit ahead of Toronto (516.2). But without the jackpots, they are much closer together (at 527.5, 521.5, and 496.2, respectively).

But these results raise a very different kind of question. I originally expected that the jackpots would be bad for parity and team dynamics. That expectation has clearly not panned out at all. But if jackpots don’t affect that (they can, they just haven’t), are they good for the league overall? I would argue that they’re still not great, but for an entirely different reason.

They’re just confusing and have poor optics.

Watching the matches on the streams thus far, it’s just hard to tell who scored how many points. You often see the “normal” points displayed as athletes finish very promptly, but you don’t see the jackpot points right away — it takes quite some time for them to appear. You can see the lights flashing in the background, but does that mean a 1 point jackpot? A 10 point jackpot? Who knows. The delay in providing this kind of information to the viewer is, at best, annoying. It would be akin to watching a basketball game, seeing somebody make a basket and having 2 points awarded… and then maybe a minute or two later seeing that actually this was a 3-point shot for the opposing team.

The other side of this is the optics. It’s hard to really tell how and when somebody is going to get jackpotted. The league started flashing lane lines red this season, but those aren’t always accurate, and you don’t really have a good sense of what the jackpot margin means in terms of gap from the winner. One of the great things about swimming as a sport is that it’s readily apparent to even the most casual viewer who won the race. Jackpots mess with that. Plus, especially in Skins races, it just seems inherently unfair to deduct points from those swimmers that made it to the second or even the third round (for instance, Linnea Mack of the DC Trident scored 0 points in rounds 2 and 3 of the Skins in Match 4).

And for all of that confusion, all of the flashing lights, all of the extra math – they don’t wind up impacting the outcomes of meets. The league keeps insisting that the team points are all that matters, and in this case – it turns out the Jackpot points don’t really matter after all.

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2 years ago

An athlete can still jackpot someone from their own team, and “steal” money from them this season, can’t they? Seems like ISL is trying to decide if it really is a team sport or an individual sport with some team aspects.

2 years ago

It feels like a fundamental issue with a professional swim league is predictability. I don’t have any stats on this, bit I’d be willing to bet that most meet results could be near perfectly predicted just knowing who is swimming which events.

So, I think that means they need to find a way to insert uncertainty. Maybe some number of a swimmers individual events are determined at random (e.g. Dressel would normally swim the 50/100 free/100 fly but maybe he gets a bad draw and gets stuck with 100 breast/200 free/400 free; not bad events bc he’s a great, versatile swimmer but not his specialty). Many the order of events are made random. Maybe opposing teams can switch up relay… Read more »

2 years ago

Jackpots seem to have less impact than I thought. However I still think they skew towards the team with stars rather than consistent depth and distort (if apparently not change) the battle for placings behind.

One thing I’d probably conjoined with jackpots from last season was the massive advantage of choosing skins strokes.

That is definitely the biggest change for this year but possibly also impacts on jackpots not changing the order last year.

I’d either get rid entirely or halve their impact (ie steal half points). The later might be “optimum” from rewarding the best and keeping competition high for minor places but is obviously more complicated

Steve Nolan
2 years ago

One of the best things about dual meets – and I know these are all quads shush – was how even the swimmers at the back of the heat matter. Jumping from 6th to 4th helps! But not if all those people just get their points taken away.

Jackpots also involve money, right? And not that everything should always be “fair” but if you’re in an event that gets jackpotted a lot – Dressel’s 100 IM, idk, a Peaty 100 breast – you’re just kinda unlucky that you’re getting the bag snatched from ya all the damn time.

2 years ago

I think jackpots should at the very least not be a part of the skins portion. If the point is to punish poor performances, that’s done by elimination. If the incentive is to reward fast performances, that’s done by inflated points for winning. Jackpot has no use there, and would equalize some of the sillier point totals we see.

2 years ago

I think Barry nails it with this line:

One of the great things about swimming as a sport is that it’s readily apparent to even the most casual viewer who won the race”

Swimming is so gosh darn simple. Who can do X stroke for X distance in the shortest amount of time? There’s something so fundamentally compelling about that concept and the ISL just keeps messing with it.

I love the emphasis on the team aspect and the racing, but all these other gimmicks are just making it so unnecessarily complicated. Keep the points structure stable across individual events, double it for relays, and have skins with the points they’re worth without jackpots. That way, you showcase team… Read more »

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  PVSFree
2 years ago

I am an example of what you are referring to. I follow so many sports, to the point swimming is not an obsession or necessity at this time of year. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll watch a small track meet from Switzerland on YouTube. That meet will look wonderfully familiar. It won’t have flashing lights on the hurdles. I immediately ignored the ISL in season one because nothing was basic, specifically the camera angles. I didn’t return to ISL until this season. I was pleasantly surprised. At least the angles were more normal. I departed once jackpots were introduced. No reason whatsoever to learn or care what that term means. This league is pathetically trying too hard, at its own expense.

2 years ago

Any idea how many unique swimmers have jackpotted others so far? To me it seems like its the same few swimmers who jackpot the rest of the field every time, which short of flies in the face of the “well it incentivizes faster swims” argument. The only thing it incentivizes is not sand-bagging a race and getting last and scooping up free points that way.

I just don’t understand the reasoning behind ISL adding so many complications especially if their goal is to grow the fan base (and thus their own revenue). A high school swim meet is already confusing enough for a non-swimmer to watch.

Daeleb Creseel
Reply to  GowdyRaines
2 years ago

there are penalty points for super slow swims

Reply to  GowdyRaines
2 years ago

Any idea how many unique swimmers have jackpotted others so far?

Across both seasons, in individual or skins events? 136 (48 of them having done it one time just once).

However, not all jackpots are equal. How many jackpotted more than 1 point? 103 (40 of them having done it just once). More than 3? 64 (27 of them having done it just once). More than 6? 41 (21 of them having done it just once).

Reply to  Barry
2 years ago

Interesting stats, those are higher numbers than I would have thought actually. Thanks Barry!

Bill G
2 years ago

ISL’s scoring system reminds me of the “I knew an old lady who swallowed a fly” nursery rhyme that involves swallowing ever increasing animals to deal with the fly “but why she swallowed the fly”, remains a mystery.

Year one saw the skins, with huge points up for grabs for sprinters and potentially skewing team victories to those with dominant sprinters. Skins – in theory – also allows a team to make up a lot of points and score a dramatic come-from-behind victory.

Year two saw jackpots, I think on theory to allow non-sprinters to score more points (e.g., if you have 100m-200m backstrokers who aren’t sprinters, they can make the match closer if they can jackpot). Jackpots also –… Read more »