Understanding the Matt Biondi-Led International Swimmers Alliance

Forty-nine swimmers from 20 countries have already put their names down to be a part of professional swimming’s newest endeavor: the International Swimmers Alliance.

Editor’s note: the ISA, is not technically a union, though it is being frequently referred to as one. A union is a type of association, and the alliance is a different type of association. This parsing is crucial for understanding the rights and obligations, which we’ll try to unpack in a later article.

Born out of 11-time Olympic medalist Matt Biondi‘s career-long frustration with the lack of financial opportunity for swimmers, the Alliance seeks to improve economic conditions for professional athletes in the sport primarily by negotiating to raise compensation at major international competitions, then collect and redistribute those earnings.

Biondi had been teaching high school math for 17 years, having intentionally distanced himself from the swimming world since retiring, when he connected with International Swimming League founder Konstantin Grigorishin through their sons Nate and Ivan, who swam together at Cal.

With athlete-empowerment movements burgeoning across many sports, the timing was right for Biondi to pick up what he started during his competitive heyday: advocating for fair pay for professional swimmers of all levels. Grigorishin will serve in a management role in the new organization.

“I began to see over my career the amount of revenue that’s generated by the athletes in the swimming community, as well as with FINA and the world championships and the Olympic Games,” Biondi told SwimSwam. “And it just seemed to me to be that the swimmers were so underrepresented at the table, especially how post-graduates are funded.”

But when he was “forthcoming” about those thoughts as an active athlete, Biondi said, he was deliberately pushed out of the limelight. “I was so upset with it all that that’s how I went into teaching, and I just said, ‘it’s not a fair game and I’m going to go do something else,'” Biondi said.

Nearly 30 years after he retired — citing a lack of financial support, in part — his dream is coming to life.

Tiered Alliance structure determines eligibility for compensation

The Alliance plans to address a range of athletes’ needs, from those who miss an Olympic podium by hundredths of a second and thus do not get paid, to those riding out the end of their careers in the ISL.

Biondi is currently the sole employee of the Alliance, a non-stock LLC which will have a 10-member board comprised of one board chair (proposed by management and approved by swimmers), six swimmer-voted representatives, two voted on by management, and one “independent representative with substantial legal expertise” selected by management or the board chair.

The active athletes involved so far have signed a non-binding “Memorandum of Understanding” to indicate their interest in the Alliance. The member athletes, also known as the Swimmers Association, will be broken into five classes to determine eligibility for compensation, as listed with their criteria below in ascending rank.

  • Junior Member
    • Requirement: (i) Be under contract with, and competing for, a club team in the League; or (ii) Be ranked in the top twenty (20) swimmers internationally for any event (LCM) for a period of at least two 2 years
    • Membership duration: Until no longer satisfying minimum requirements
  • Associate Member
    • Requirement: (i) Earn 600 career individual points in the League (so long as in at least 30% of League matches, swimmer completed at least one individual event); (ii) Participate in a Semi-Final race in the Olympic Games (“OG”) for an individual event; (iii) Participate in a Finals race in the FINA World Championships (“Worlds”) (LCM) for an individual event; (iv) Win a medal in the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships (“PanPacs”) or the European Games (“Europeans”) (LCM) for an individual event; or (v) Win a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games (“CG”) or Asian Games (“AG”).
    • Membership duration: 4 years
  • Member
    • Requirement: (i) Earn 1500 career individual points in the League (so long as in at least 25% of League matches, swimmer completed at least one individual event); (ii) Participate in a Finals race in OG for an individual event; (iii) Win a medal in Worlds (LCM) for an individual event; or (iv) Win a gold medal in PanPacs or Europeans (LCM) for an individual event.
    • Membership duration: 4 years
  • Senior Member
    • Requirement: (i) Earn 2500 career individual points in the League (so long as in at least 25% of League matches, swimmer completed at least one individual event); (ii) Win a medal in OG for an individual event; or (iii) Win a gold medal in Worlds (LCM) for an individual event.
    • Membership duration: 8 years (if win medal in OG); 6 years if win championship in Worlds. Plus, gain an additional 4 years as a “Member” thereafter.
  • Exclusive Member
    • (i) Earn 4000 career individual points in the League (so long as in at least 25% of League matches, swimmer completed at least one individual event); or (ii) Win a gold medal in OG for an individual event.
    • Membership duration: Until retirement
  • Honorable Member (Active)
    • Requirement: Be voted in by at least 75% of the Members (maximum of one Honorable Member per calendar year; Active or Retired).
    • Membership duration: Forever
  • Honorable Member (Retired)
    • Requirement: Be voted in by at least 75% of the Members (maximum of one Honorable Member per calendar year; Active or Retired).
    • Membership duration: Forever

When a swimmer secures earnings from an athletic accomplishment directly — not from an endorsement or sponsorship deal — that money will go through the Alliance and be re-distributed through the tiers of swimmers.

“We’re only interested in what we can bring in revenue for sports value,” Biondi said.

Management will receive a 20% commission on prize money, and the other 80% will go back to the athletes, as is outlined in the Alliance’s MOU. Eighty percent of the remaining 80% (or 64% of the original amount) will go to the top tier of athletes who earned the applicable medals, and the remaining amount to the rest of the member athletes.

Some portion of the athletes’ money may be paid through a deferred compensation retirement plan.

This is all with one major caveat: management can work to increase compensation (including prize money and appearance fees) at “target” events, like the Olympics and Worlds. If those efforts are unsuccessful, however, management will not receive a cut of winnings from that event, according to the MOU.

Outside of the major events that fall under the Alliance’s jurisdiction, swimmers are free to accept prize money directly. Athletes who rack up earnings on the Pro Swim Series circuit, for example, would not redistribute that money through the Alliance.

Additionally, swimmers who sign on to create the first iteration of the Swimmers Association will officially be “Founding Members.” They will receive benefits after retiring at a membership level one tier below their status at the time of retirement, for a period of three to 10 years (to be determined later on).

It will likely take time for funding to become available for the lower tiers of swimmers, Biondi added.

“The idea is once the Alliance becomes financially stable, that there would be funding for what we would call ‘junior members,’ somebody who’s no longer competing in college but is top-20 in the world,” Biondi said. As to whether he’d expect that some athletes would not see an immediate return on their investment, Biondi was candid.

“That’s absolutely possible. It’s also possible that the Alliance just doesn’t go anywhere and that this is it. It’s just another failed attempt to organize athletes,” he said. “This has been going on for a long, long time. Every generation of athletes has sat down at the board or gone to FINA.”

“It may take a few years to get going. Or it could just catch fire and we could be in business before Tokyo. I just don’t really know, to be honest.”

Alliance Eyes New Multi-Sport ‘Pro Olympics’ International Competition

On top of its prize money mission, the Alliance also has a new multi-sport international competition in the works — a “pro Olympics.” It would be similar to the multi-sport European Championships in Berlin and Glasgow last year, and would include track and field, swimming (both pool and open water), triathlon, marathon and BMX bike racing, Biondi said.

Instead of competing for their home nation, athletes would sign with ISL-like teams — organizers are hoping for eight teams. The event’s proposed name? “Games to Magic,” Biondi said.

For new events organized by Alliance management, the organization envisions that 50% of net revenue will go to athletes for “appearance fees, prize money, and travel and accommodation expenses,” 30% will go to the host city, and 20% will go back to management, according to the MOU.

There is no timetable, however, on when the first “Games to Magic” event will be held.

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Captain Ahab

This sounds like a good idea until I read the word redistribute and like Margaret Thatcher said socialism is fine until you run out of someone else’s money.

Coachsc

It already is redistributed by the event organizers/Fina. This is simply a different balance to get leverage for a larger athlete share and support more athletes.

Brian M

False, this is just a way for the newbie swimmers just getting on the world stage to kick up money to the higher tiered swimmers who have “earned it” (exclamation points for sarcasm). We will see how many of these swimmers are still on board when the money starts getting passed around off of their individual efforts.

Mr Piano

Jeremy Corbyn is where it’s at

I am a co-founder of swimswam, and I’ve owned or run businesses since I retired from swimming. I am ALSO IN A UNION, the WGA (Writers Guild of America).100% ok with it. It works, and it supported me in my late 20s and early 30s when I worked in the entertainment industry… The Alliance can and will work if Matt Biondi & CO can advocate for athletes at the FINA / IOC level. There is a bigger share to be earned by athletes and more say-so at the decision table as well. The Alliance is about standing together to get that long overdue position for athletes as a whole. I also think it’s great for FINA/IOC to have more creative… Read more »

Woke Stasi

Mel: Just curious what being a member of the WGA has actually done for you. I’ve written four books (two of them 500,000+ sellers) and never felt the slightest need to join a union. What am I missing? What would I have gained had I done so? Thanks for your reply.

I was a screenwriter in my former life. If you’re non union, producers pay was small for specs or assignments. If you’re WGA, the baseline rate came way up…. What books did you author that hit 500k+? Congrats!

Woke Stasi

Mel: Thanks for the insight. The big one was “A Whack on the Side of Head” (2 million copies, translated into 24 languages). You prolly know that I borrowed one of my first Swim Swam screen names from a comment you made. Asked what you attributed your swimming success to, you replied: “Hard work and years of plain suck.”

hahhahahhaha, yrs of plain suck is true in the best way…. (googling A WHACK ON THE SIDE OF THE HEAD now)

Brian M

That’s fine and dandy, but you only pay dues to a union. I am 100% certain that you are not taking profits from your endeavors and businesses and sharing them with other WGA members. If The Alliance was collective bargaining with FINA to help benefit swimmers and swimmers joined and paid dues to the alliance that would be one thing, but this is just a ploy to funnel money and benefits to the senior members.

Wowswim

When you don’t know what socialism is

gator

Ok, so I win prize money, get taxed on it, and then give to the alliance to hand out to others? Sounds like socialism to me…barf!

Brian M

With all due respect to Mr. Biondi, this is possibly the stupidest thing I have ever heard of in the sport of swimming.

Blaize

Agreed

Matt Biondi

Ok millennials, READ THE ARTICLE! you don’t pay into the organization , it’s not a Union! There are no dues! The Alliance is organized to create additional prize money that currently does not exist. We are only asking for a share of the revenue that we create. So the question becomes, why wouldn’t you join the Alliance when there is NOTHING to lose.

About Torrey Hart

Torrey Hart

Torrey is from Oakland, CA, and majored in media studies and American studies at Claremont McKenna College, where she swam distance freestyle for the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps team. Outside of SwimSwam, she has bylines at Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, SB Nation, and The Student Life newspaper.

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