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New pro swim venture eyes expansion beyond Tokyo 2020

The International Swimming League has signed up many of the sport's top talents, including more than 100 Olympians

"The show that gets put on - it makes you feel like you're at a professional sporting event," says Caeleb Dressel, one of the ISL's biggest names and a top swimmer for the Cali Condors team. "The light show, the DJ, the music, the crowd."

The sport's biggest stars such as Hungary's Katinka Hosszu (left) and Great Britain's Adam Peaty (right) have wowed ISL crowds.


THE International Swimming League's (ISL) inaugural season has received sparse media coverage so far. There's little to no visible signage at events that feature sponsor logos. The league's organisers say that early ratings and television production left much to be desired.

Still, ISL founder Konstantin Grigorishin said he has seen enough - strong ticket sales, impressive performances and an electric atmosphere around the pool deck - to convince him that there's a place in the sporting world for a professional swim league. "I think all of this confirms my hypothesis that the public is hungry for swimming," said Mr Grigorishin, the Ukrainian businessman who is financing the venture.

The league is more than halfway through its first season. Mr Grigorishin said he anticipated financial struggles out of the gate and is committed to expanding the ISL following the 2020 Tokyo Olympics next summer.

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The ISL is in the US state of Maryland this weekend where a sold-out audience will see some of the world's best swimmers compete in a two-day team competition. Four teams will participate, featuring several Olympic medallists including Caeleb Dressel, Nathan Adrian, Natalie Coughlin and Matt Grevers.

One star who won't be in attendance, however, is Katie Ledecky, a cornerstone of the DC Trident team. Ledecky is focused on her training at Stanford University, which has limited her participation in the league's first season.

The ISL matches look and feel more like a college dual meet than the televised national or international competitions with which casual fans might be more familiar. The swimming takes place in a short-course pool, and the matches are fast-paced with no distances longer than 400 metres.

"The show that gets put on - it makes you feel like you're at a professional sporting event," said Dressel, one of the league's biggest names and a top swimmer for the Cali Condors team. "The light show, the DJ, the music, the crowd."

This weekend's event marks the league's fifth stop and the third in the US. There were some early hiccups, Mr Grigorishin said, but he thinks the product has improved from week to week.

This year amounts to a trial balloon of sorts for the ISL. The league became official in January, announced its eight teams and schedule in June and held its first match six weeks ago in Indianapolis. The league moved so quickly out of the gate that potential sponsors already had allocated their budgets and many venues had been booked.

"We are in the most tough financial stage. We are investing the money," Mr Grigorishin said. "But how do you convince a sponsor to sponsor something that does not exist? Now we have a product."

He's counting on a boost coming out of the Tokyo Olympics with hopes of starting the second season in September, adding two teams and staging 27 matches in all - 20 more than this year - with a championship slated for the following April.

After some public bickering last year with Fina, the international governing body for the sport, the ISL launched with the promise of creating more opportunities for swimmers, possibly extending careers and growing the sport. The league anticipates distributing more than US$4 million to athletes this season. To date, more than 130 have earned at least US$1,000 in prize money and 16 swimmers have earned US$10,000 or more.

The ISL launched during a slow period in the swimming calendar and signed up many of the sport's top talents - more than 100 Olympians, including 41 gold medallists from the 2016 Rio Olympics.

"The pro athletes don't have much of an opportunity to race during these fall months," said Lilly King, the gold medal-winning breaststroker from the Rio Games who turned professional earlier this year, "so it's been nice being able to get up and go race early in the season and get some money doing it".

The ISL has not attracted big crowds, but it also hasn't been able to host events in large venues. According to the league, the initial event in Indianapolis last month drew 700-1,000 people each day. An event in the Dallas area saw a sell-out crowd of 1,000 fans. The matches in Naples, Italy, were near-capacity with 1,600 in attendance, and the event in Budapest sold around 2,200 tickets each day. Organisers expect a capacity crowd of 1,000 fans on Saturday and Sunday in Maryland.

While the swimmers are not necessarily in peak condition in November, the ISL has still seen some exciting performances.

Australia's Minna Atherton set a world short-course record in the 100m backstroke (54.89 seconds) last month, and Ledecky set an American short-course record in the 400m freestyle (3.54.06) in Indianapolis. Most of the sport's biggest stars have wowed ISL crowds, including Hungary's Katinka Hosszu, a three-time Olympic gold medallist; Sweden's Sarah Sjöström, who currently tops the ISL money list with US$31,400; and Great Britain's Adam Peaty, the current world record-holder in the 50m and 100m breaststroke.

Ledecky has called the league a turning point for the sport, and others, such as King and Peaty, have said the ISL represents the future for swimming. But it could also change training habits and impact performances. "If it grows into what we believe it can be, it is going to totally change the way swimmers train," King noted. "Normally, we're such a training-driven sport, where it's normally train, train, train for maybe two big meets a year. Now it's more like a league like MLB or NFL, where you're racing every weekend. So it's definitely going to impact training. We'll see if that's a positive or a negative."

For now, it complements the training for many of the swimmers. Dressel, for example, likely will have a busy programme at the Tokyo Olympics, where he could take aim at eight medals. This weekend, he could compete in that same number of events over a two-day period.

"A good reason to do the league was that it fit my training schedule very well, having these meets to break up the heavy training cycle and get some racing done," he explained. "It's been really cool to see it come to life, from hearing about it as a start-up to now where it's not just up and running. It's running very well." WP