The future of the International Swimming League is, as of now, up in the air. The league, already struggling to find profitability financially, was dealt a huge blow when Russian invaded Ukraine in February. That’s because the league’s founder, and sole financier for most of its existence, Konstantin Grigorishin had most of his fortune tied up in Ukraine, Russia, or both countries.
That point was hammered home this week when it was revealed that one of his companies in Ukraine was seized by the Ukrainian government to assist with the war effort.
Prior to that, ISL made an attempt to diversify its management and investment by bringing in some new blood – Ben Allen and Matt Dawe. But with their business interests at least in part tied to cryptocurrencies, which have taken a big hit this year, and estimated costs-per-season in the neighborhood of $25-40 million, that isn’t exactly firm footing.
The overarching theme highlighted by these three men is that the league was never developed to stand on its own feet as a self-sustaining entity; instead, from investment to management, the league was developed by a group of individuals who, while very talented, had very little direct experience in this sort of professional league sporting environment.
That doesn’t mean that the league and its management was without talent. Upper management had a lot of people who, for example, had a lot of experience with administering swimming on a national governing body perspective. The teams’ general managers were mostly great swimmers, who had the ability through their resumes to attract more great swimmers. The announcers Mark Foster and Rowdy Gaines are among the most-experienced in the world in their commentator roles. Ben Allen and Matt Dawes are guys who have a lot of business savvy, based on their results in other industries. The communications staff worked with a lot of international-level sports communications in the past, and even down to photographer Mike Lewis, a long-time friend of our site, who knows how to shoot swimming as well as anybody on earth.
The owner, Konstantin Grigorishin, knows how to make money.
But the problem is that, while there was a lot of experience and talent in all of those varied arenas that are components of a professional sports league, the league was short on the most crucial experience: that of running a professional sports league. The glue that puts all of those pieces together, the person who has done this before and knows what works, what doesn’t work, what moves the needle, what doesn’t move the needle, and how all of those pieces come together into a cohesive juggernaut.
The league doubled and tripled its operations and season before it was even close to good-enough in its first iteration.
And part of this, maybe, was by design. Grigorishin always talked about the ISL being a post-modern league, a different thing than other sporting leagues in the world. He had a vision to execute, and that vision went beyond creating just a financially-viable professional sporting league. He wanted to change sport.
And ironically, Grigorishin, the minerals and energy magnate, had arguably the most experience in professional sports: he had been a previous owner of a number of minor football clubs, though most of his experience in those endeavors wound up being around financing and legal matters more than the day-to-day operations. I think the opacity and dogma of that vision was, at times, what held the league back.
There are professional sports leagues around the world of every shape, size, and flavor. From the huge, like the NFL, NBA, and Premier League soccer, to the less-huge, like team tennis, or ultimate frisbee, or even pickleball (which has bootstrapped itself to some very high-profile investors), the various successful models of how to build a professional sporting league has been proven.
It can be built quickly with big investment and big experience. That is how the WNBA in the US, for example, was built: with huge support from the NBA and NBA owners (and even that league has still never been profitable in its existence, though it’s creeping closer to that mark).
Or, it can be built slowly from grass-roots, where smart people and hard-workers figure out what’s happening and learn from their own mistakes, or others’ mistakes, before their budget and complexity ramps up the pressure to succeed. World Team Tennis, American Ultimate Disc League, the National Women’s Soccer League, and most of the biggest-brand professional sports leagues used this model — although much of that happened before I was born.
There are not many examples, though, of leagues where grassroots management and deep pockets came together into success.
And here’s the thing about the ISL: It is full of smart, talented, and experienced people who can figure it out. So far, though, when they have problems, they’ve been able to use lawyers and money to solve those problems. That means the managers, who again lack experience in doing professional sports, don’t get the value of that experience of a growth mindset.
For this league to succeed, they need to figure out how to build the fire themselves, and then use the money and the resources to pour gasoline on that fire.
A great and relevant example to me, specifically, is the repeated mistakes of the communications: by season 3, they were still announcing television schedules after the season began. They never really felt the pain of the first two seasons of that mistake, and they didn’t have a veteran professional sports executive making them find a better way.
And so that’s why, to me, the current turmoil in the league, which includes a postponement of the 2022 season, is the league’s biggest opportunity yet. The public’s expectations of the league returning next year is low. Very low. Which is not entirely reflective of whether next season will happen (because not much has leaked out of the ISL’s black box since the season was canceled).
But that gives them the opportunity to scale back and learn. Create an executable season, something that looks more like the compact season 1 than the sprawling season 3. Give themselves time to perfect their operations and growth model, to figure out how to communicate and publicize the league, to figure out which scoring wrinkles work and which ones don’t, to figure out where the best place to host meets is, and what the best way to reach television audiences around the world is. Give the athletes a chance to make attending ISL meets a habit via cooperation rather than a stressful interference with their personal and national team commitments.
If you get Ben Allen, and Konstantin Grigorishin, and Lenny Krayzelburg, and Paris Jacobs, and Rob Woodhouse, and Kaitlin Sandeno, and Rowdy Gaines, and Katinka Hosszu, and all of the other talented and brilliant and successful people who have been involved in this league, in the same place, manage it, and create an environment for them to learn together and execute on that learning, they will not fail. If they listen to their audience, and if the top of the food chain listens to all of these highly-skilled people that they’ve brought in to help this league, they will not fail.
The athletes love the excitement of ISL. The fans love the idea of ISL and some of the innovations and the pacing. I love the variety and diversity of presentation that ISL brings to the sport and what that offers us as a media organization, and the ability to keep more athletes in the sport for longer.
But the ISL needs to find its glue, to bring all of those great things together into a cohesive league. If that is going to happen, this reset is the time to do it.