New ISL Rules: Athletes Must Be 18, Two-Year Rookie Contracts, Full Draft Order

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:

  1. Lowest-ranked team from the previous season gets the #1 pick.
    1. In 2021, this would be the Aqua Centurions
  2. Second-lowest-ranked team from previous season gets the #2 pick
    1. 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
9 #2 Team
10 #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.

Other notes:

  • 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.

Veteran Contracts

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.

Rookie Contracts

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:

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5 months ago

Is there a minimum salary? How are teams budgets decided?

5 months ago

Dont like the idea of not allowing swimmers under 18 to participate. Ofcourse, they should be represented by an adult (parent, agent) but would restrict a lot of budding swimmers. eg: Pilato suddenly goes from being a star to not being able to participate. Seems strange to me.

Last edited 5 months ago by maverick1993
Reply to  maverick1993
5 months ago

I think it makes sense that the league doesn’t want to be responsible for caring for minors while they travel all over the world to meets throughout the season (it’s not always gonna be a condensed season at a single location like last year). The league’s also not lucractive enough to justify a minor travelling with a guardian and I doubt ISL want to be responsible for those expenses either.

Reply to  Troyy
5 months ago

it’s sad though, less of a chance for wjr to pop out of nowhere

Silent Observer
Reply to  maverick1993
5 months ago

I just see this as another step in the direction of legitimizing the league in the eyes of the greater sporting world.

Plus the fact that 17 and unders are not fully developed in terms of mental and physical health. It’s not like we see 15 yr olds competing in the NFL or the FIFA WORLD CUP

Reply to  Silent Observer
5 months ago

The next step is tossing the jackpots in the trash and avoid adding any other “game show” like features.

Reply to  Silent Observer
5 months ago

Speaking of FIFA World Cup: Kylian Mbappe, the guy who lead France to their win in 2018 was 17 at the time. It really is not uncommon to have under 18 year olds compete at the highest level in most sports.

in my opinion, the ISL should have the goal to host meets with the fastest swimmers in the world, no matter their age. Just like in any other serious major sports.

Reply to  swammer
5 months ago

Mbappe was 19. Only a handful of soccer players have ever played in the world cup before the age of 18, and none since 2002

Age Requirement
Reply to  Walt
2 months ago

Toronto Titans has Summer McIntosh on their roster. Is she 18?

Reply to  Age Requirement
2 months ago

She is not. They secretly decided to waive the age requirement.

Reply to  Silent Observer
5 months ago

Well, gymnastics have been building a really good reputation lately for taking care of those teenage athletes…

5 months ago

If I get it right, the two swimmers selected in the first round of the draft will not be eligible to be retained through fan voting.
Otherwise, since fan voting results are announced after round 1 of draft, there is a scenario where a swimmer is selected to join a team through the first round of draft and at the same time fans have voted to retain him/her.

Reply to  Jared Anderson
5 months ago

Does anyone know when the teams can put more swimmers into the retention group?
Will it be after a round is completed?
Or would it be as in some of the expansion drafts for the professional sports leagues in the USA where you can add one or more swimmers to the retention group after one of your athletes have been pick up by another team?
Otherwise one team could potentially loose up to 9 swimmers during day 1, swimmers 6-14.
Without having thought this through at all, my recommendations would be that after you have 1 swimmer picked, you can add one more swimmer to your protected list (could be 2 more to the protected list… Read more »

5 months ago

Does the minimum age affect athletes that have already competed in ISL or only those entering the league for the first time?

5 months ago

This is surly exactly what Tokyo and Iron would have hoped for? Both have good enough teams to have very strong 16s then get to pick 2/3 swimmers before their main competitors can even start the draft process. Below Energy and Cali the league was more even this year 8-3 were relatively similar so New York getting 4 Picks before Cali could mean that teams that know they wont win their semi finals may sabotage themselves to get a better draft slot for the next year.

Hopefully in the interest of sportsmanship we will shouldn’t see this but, as we all know, especially in swimming, never say never.

5 months ago

Does anyone know whatever happened with the ISL’s financial troubles? I know a few vendors publicly stated that ISL hadn’t paid many months after the work had been provided. Really hope they’ve been able to pay the athletes at least.

Reply to  Chad
5 months ago

Don’t think you’d be seeing guys like Caeleb and Chad advertise it on Instagram if they hadn’t been paid

Reply to  Pvdh
5 months ago

Yes. Hey SwimSwam, I am guessing you left off a step in your described draft process – lets call it “STEP ZERO”. This is the step where ISL zero’s out their contractual financial obligations to the athletes for last season.

5 months ago

That under – 18 rule is BS

Last edited 5 months ago by maybe?
Corn Pop
Reply to  maybe?
5 months ago

Would you send your 16 year old off to a bunch of unknown men ?

Reply to  Corn Pop
5 months ago

Katie Ledecky 15 yr old gold medalist, Katie Hoff, Missy Franklin, Ragan Smith. These are just a few American atheltes that were 18 and under when they where world champions or olympic champions and/or world record holders. These are just american ones off the top of my head. I dont get the age thing as well. For Americans it would be hard since they would have to gice up NCAA eligiblity, but why not have the best compete or at least give them the option

Corn Pop
Reply to  Troy
5 months ago

Were they taken out of school & sent off to private teams with various personnel ? Thij

5 months ago

This is really interesting!

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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