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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Woke Stasi
3 years ago

My short list of the most heralded US MALE SWIMMERS in history (in alphabetical order):

Matt Biondi
Michael Phelps
Don Schollander
Mark Spitz
Johnny Weissmuller

Reply to  Woke Stasi
3 years ago

Ryan Lochte
Calaeb Dressel

Brian M
3 years ago

This is not a union, this would be voluntary income sharing and redistribution.

Matt Biondi
Reply to  Brian M
3 years ago

Way to go Brian M. You read the article correctly.

3 years ago

News Flash: This is how most professional sporting leagues work. Lebron isn’t out there making money only when he wins games. Rookie pay scales, salary caps, etc. all work cause everyone (including owners) pool their gate receipts, TV contracts, etc. and pay the players. The system works, because the players union has actual bargaining ability and leverages that to get stability and money for their members. If this concept can go from concept to reality, then for the first time in the history of our sport the majority of professional swimmers will have enough leverage to perhaps *GASPS* make a living wage.

Reply to  Nate
3 years ago

There’s a pretty significant difference between what you’re talking about and what is proposed in the ISA. In the NBA, Lebron still negotiates his contract individually with the Lakers. Sure within certain agreed-upon parameters and rules, but the union doesn’t negotiate on his behalf and then allocate the money between him and Kevin Durant and Giannis. It’s a false equivalence to say “this is how the NBA works, so this is how swimming should work,” because the two don’t actually work the same way.

Mike S
3 years ago

One thing I noticed is that management gets a 20% commission off the top. This would mean that the total pool of dollars available to the athletes is now smaller. In theory, management would be working to increase the total pool so that the 80% athlete share is larger than the total pool would have been without them.

Reply to  Torrey Hart
3 years ago

The loftier the prize money gets, the less negligible it 20% becomes. While I understand that the point you are making is that swimmers would be paid enough not to care, if that 20% became $1 million, should that not go to the swimmers?

George Block
3 years ago

The real test will be if the members take “action” at an Olympic of LC World Championship event. That is their ultimate leverage point, but also – by definition – their greatest risk. Does swimming have a Curt Flood?

Mr Piano
3 years ago

Unions are completely necessary, and they should be strengthened. Power to the workers.

3 years ago

Back when I was a pro athlete I would’ve loved to have some more financial security, like a salary or a minimum payout. Instead, if I got sick the day before, got a flat tire during the race, any kind of mishap at all, or just finished one place out of the money, I walked away with nothing. I would have absolutely been on board with this kind of thing for that reason alone. Having management use the extra money to promote the athletes and the events they’re in (including creating a new event) just makes it all the better.

I would love to hear opinions from other former or current pro athletes in non-salary sports. If you have… Read more »

Sun Yangs Hammer
3 years ago

Thought it was April first for a minute there. Get out of here swim commies

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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