The International Swimming League (ISL) has released more details on its draft process. One important piece: only the two non-playoff teams from last year will get 1st-round picks.
2021 will be the first season in which the ISL will hold a draft to determine rosters. Teams are still able to retain up to half of their 2020 rosters via several rounds of swimmer protection. We break down all the steps below:
Each GM must announce 5 pre-selected athletes from their 2020 roster to retain for 2021. Each GM must announce the names publicly at least 7 days before day 1 of the ISL draft.
Day 1 of Draft
Round 1 of retention: Each GM announces 4 more swimmers to retain.
Round 2 of retention: Each GM announces 3 more swimmers to retain.
Round 3 of retention: Each GM announces 2 more swimmers to retain.
Round 4 of retention: Each GM announces 1 more swimmer to retain.
This multi-round system could force some on-the-fly decision-making. For example, if breaststrokers around the league are being retained, a team may pivot to retain its own breaststrokers, seeing that the draft pool is getting thin in that event.
*GMs can retain up to 15 swimmers, but aren’t required to retain all 15. So a team that wants to turn its roster over from last season can choose not to retain the maximum number of swimmers in any of these rounds.
All unretained athletes join the ISL Draft Pool, along with any new additions to the ISL.
*Note: it’s still unclear whether teams can retain athletes who were announced to a roster last year but did not ultimately compete. That would include many of the top Australian swimmers, especially on the London Roar.
Round 1 of Draft: GMs of the lowest-finishing teams get to select 1 swimmer each from the ISL Draft Pool:
- Lowest-ranked team from the previous season gets the #1 pick.
- In 2021, this would be the Aqua Centurions
- Second-lowest-ranked team from previous season gets the #2 pick
- In 2021, this would be the DC Trident
*Not every franchise will have a draft pick in every round, as explained more in day 2 below.
Fan Voting Opens: After the first round of the draft, the ISL will open a fan vote, allowing each team to retain 1 more athlete from their 2020 roster. In order to vote, fans will have to (1) register on the ISL platform and (2) purchase a subscription to stream either the full ISL season, or one team’s specific matches.
Each registered fan will get one vote to cast for one team to retain a swimmer from 2020.
End of Day 1.
Day 2 of Draft
Fan-Vote Players Retained: The ISL will kick off the day by announcing the results of fan voting, and which players will be retained to their 2020 teams through fan votes.
ISL Draft Continues: the draft will continue with 13 more rounds. One important note is that not every team will have a pick in every round. The lowest-finishing teams from the previous season get picks in the early rounds, and the top teams don’t get picks until much later. We’ve visualized the pick order below, with the team numbers referring to each team’s final rank in the previous ISL season:
|Pick #||Round 1||Round 2||Round 3||Round 4||Rounds 5-10||Round 11||Round 12||Round 13||Round 14|
|1||#10 Team||#10 Team||#10 Team||#10 Team||#10 Team||#8 Team||#6 Team||#4 Team||#2 Team|
|2||#9 Team||#9 Team||#9 Team||#9 Team||#9 Team||#7 Team||#5 Team||#3 Team||#1 Team|
|3||#8 Team||#8 Team||#8 Team||#8 Team||#6 Team||#4 Team||#2 Team|
|4||#7 Team||#7 Team||#7 Team||#7 Team||#5 Team||#3 Team||#1 Team|
|5||#6 Team||#6 Team||#6 Team||#4 Team||#2 Team|
|6||#5 Team||#5 Team||#5 Team||#3 Team||#1 Team|
|7||#4 Team||#4 Team||#2 Team|
|8||#3 Team||#3 Team||#1 Team|
*For 2021, the #10 team would be the Aqua Centurions and the #9 team the DC Trident.
For 30 days* after the ISL draft, GMs can negotiate with remaining swimmers to fill out their rosters. GMs can only sign athletes from the ISL Draft Pool.
*In future seasons, the signing period will be 60 days. For 2021, the period is shortened to allow for international travel arrangements amid the ongoing pandemic.
- Athletes must be at least 18 as of registration to join the ISL draft pool.
- This is a major development, as junior athletes have previously held big roles in the ISL. Notably, Benedetta Pilato was the #32 overall scorer in the league last year at the age of 15. Based on these rules, she’d be blocked out of the ISL until the 2023 season.
- ISL teams must have 24 swimmers on their roster – 12 men and 12 women.
- Rosters can have up to 36 total athletes.
- The ISL has also established cutoff times for eligibility to enter the draft. The times aren’t particularly fast for a professional swimming league (the short course yard times are considerably slower than what it takes to earn an NCAA invite), and mostly appear to be a baseline to keep the draft pool from getting too large. The cutoff time table is shown below:
*Athletes must hit these times between January 1, 2018 and May 31, 2021. Athletes must better the cutoff time in at least 3 different events. (Different courses of the same event still count as one event, so athletes can’t make the 50 free in SCY, SCM and LCM and count it as three events).
Veterans vs Rookies
The new ISL rules also show how the league plans to handle contracts and free agency in future seasons. The ISL has created two categories for athletes: rookies and veterans.
Veterans have competed in the ISL in either 2019 or 2020. In future seasons, a veteran swimmer will be an athlete who has competed in 2 ISL seasons with an ISL team.
Rookies are all athletes who aren’t veterans. That should include brand-new ISL swimmers, whether they just turned 18, turned pro out of the NCAA, or simply didn’t compete in the ISL in past seasons. Beyond 2021, rookies will remain “rookies” for their first two seasons in the league.
There will be a 60-day window after the end of the ISL season in which ISL veterans can negotiate with the GM of any team – though that is subject to specific contractual agreements. That suggests a sort of “free agency” period in which veterans not under contract can negotiate and sign anywhere. It may also lead to multi-year contracts for athletes (to keep them from free agency), or clauses in contracts governing the negotiation with teams during that free agency window.
All rookies will be required to sign a two-year contract with an ISL team. After the first year, rookies have the option to opt out of their contract and sign a separate two-year contract without the opt-out possibility.
So, for example, an ISL rookie drafted this year will sign with a franchise for 2021 and 2022. If after 2021, they want to switch teams or adjust their contract, they can opt out of the second year, but will have to sign a new two-year deal for 2022 and 2023, with no chance of opting out before the 2023 season is over.
Here’s a flow-chart from the ISL site to explain the system: