If the opening season of the International Swimming League (ISL) produced some thrilling performances, world records and new stars, the sequel promises even more drama.
Touting it as the biggest global sporting event this year, ISL Founder and Chairman Konstantin Grigorishin believes tweaks to the format and two new teams will “create superheroes” and deliver an entertaining competition in Budapest, Hungary.
More than 300 swimmers from 10 international teams, with athletes drawn from nearly 50 countries, will compete in the ISL 2020 regular season, semi-finals and Grand Final at the Duna Arena in a condensed five-week schedule, starting on October 16 and concluding on November 22.
The Toronto Titans and Tokyo Frog Kings are rookie teams in the only major global competition in 2020 to feature the world’s best swimmers. They will do battle for the championship title with North American teams Cali Condors (San Francisco), DC Trident (Washington), NY Breakers (New York) and LA Current (Los Angeles). The European teams are the Aqua Centurions (Rome), defending champions Energy Standard (Paris), London Roar and Team Iron (Budapest). Each club has a roster of 36 athletes, 18 male and 18 female.
Grigorishin says the coronavirus pandemic has presented plenty of challenges. “To organize this competition was not easy. This is part of our job… we have to survive and do our best to organize competitions like this.”
Our job is to minimize the number of cases and create the best medical protocols to take care of swimmers and protect them from this infection, and the team is working hard on that.”
Eight teams are now in Budapest preparing for the 2020 Season. They are in a COVID-secure bubble, which encompasses training and competition venues and two official hotels. All swimmers, coaches and entourages were tested before entering the bubble. Anyone who tests positive will have to quarantine and follow strict rules for self-isolation. The Japanese and Canadian clubs arrive on October 19.
The short-course program will see four clubs take part in matches spanning two days. Every match features 39 races – 32 individual, 5 team relays and 2 skin races. Points are awarded on a sliding scale, with the winner bagging 9 points. Points are doubled in relays and awarded after each of the 3 skin race heats. There are points penalties if an athlete, or a relay team, is disqualified or does not finish the race.
Two swimmers from each club will take part in each race, with their combined points tally going towards the total result for their club. The team with the highest number of points from the 39 races wins the match.
In the regular championship, clubs can earn 4 points for 1st place in the match, 3 for 2nd, 2 for 3rd and 1 for 4th. After all matches are completed, the top eight teams advance to the semifinals, the four winners of which will advance to the final.
In the quest to spice up the competition, the ISL has this year added 100 individual medley races for men and women – and it’s made several other innovations.
The winners of the medley relays get to choose the stroke for the skins race. These are a series of back-to-back 50-meter freestyle races operating on a knockout basis until just two swimmers remain to contest a final race. Unlike the 2019 season, points are awarded after each of the heats, with 14 points offered for the winner of the last leg of a skins race.
Grigorishin says the revamped format is designed “to make the competition even more intense, more unpredictable with more intrigue and excitement.” The new ratings system “will bring some new narratives and new followers to our competition,” he adds.
The points formula allows the big names of world swimming to bolster their reputations, while other athletes have the chance to make a name for themselves. A Most Valuable Player will be announced after each match and at the end of the ISL season, based on the number of points they accumulate.
Grigorishin is especially excited about the new jackpot time rule.
It means that if a swimmer is ahead of athletes in his race by a margin bigger than a specified jackpot time, their points are awarded to the club winning the race. In an individual race, a swimmer can get a full jackpot, earning 37 points – with even more points on offer in a relay or skins race.
“It’s really hard but if somebody will do this, they will be a superhero,” he enthuses, adding that the ISL’s format was set up to boost the profiles of swimmers. “To create superheroes, you have to emphasise the superiority. It’s not just about timing, it’s about being the first with a solid advantage. This is a way to create superheroes.”
With no spectators cheering on the teams due to COVID restrictions, the ISL has worked hard to secure more broadcast partners to expand the global reach of season two. In the United States, a multi-year media rights deal with CBS Sports will see the ISL’s 13 events – 52 hours in total – delivered across the network’s platforms. Recently, beIN SPORTS inked a deal to broadcast the competition to fans across France, Turkey, 24 countries in the Middle East & North Africa, and 10 countries in Asia Pacific.
Efforts have also been made to ramp up engagement with swimming’s global fan base via the ISL’s OTT platform, which aims to complement the arena action with backstage stories and video content about the teams, swimmers and behind-the-scenes preparations.
Season 2020 is all set to deliver on the ISL’s promises for a more dramatic competition. 2019 champions Energy Standard will find it difficult to regain their crown, and Grigorishin expects the Canadian and Japanese teams to be no pushovers.
“The beauty of sport is unpredictability and intrigue,” he says. “I think the ISL format gives a lot of unpredictability. It’s team strategy, it’s luck, it’s psychology. You can lose all the races but win the match.
“This is a strategic game. Energy Standard have a very strong team but one or two mistakes, or maybe some bad luck, and you lose. Or maybe opponents will have a better strategy… because each team has a lot of good swimmers.”
So how will Grigorishin measure the success of season two?
“It’s a success if we create a great competition. It depends on the swimmers and production. I am really confident we will do our best and the show will be very good.”