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Volume 22 No. 27
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Pro swim league has deep backing, even deeper challenges

International Swimming League founder Konstantin Grigorishin says he’s willing to spend more than $25 million from his own pocket annually to launch the league, but experts said the ISL faces a challenging road to sustainability based off its own commercial revenue.

The eight-team, two-continent ISL will launch Oct. 4-5, and will culminate with a world championship at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas in December. With a $5 million prize budget and a promise to share league revenue 50/50 with athletes, pro swimmers and their advocates are welcoming the ISL with open arms — not only for new revenue, but for its potential of upending the International Aquatics Federation’s monopoly of the sport.

But at least in the U.S., experts said, the commercial and fan demand for a pro league in a niche sport is questionable.

“If you look at the hard-core swim audience, yeah, they’re going to tune in,” said Michael Lynch of 3 Emerald Marketing, Visa’s former sponsorship chief. “But how do you get everybody else, which is what the likes of the EPL and NFL and others have been able to do?”

Grigorishin, a Ukrainian energy and metals tycoon, is worth more than $1 billion and has a passion for swimming and helping athletes earn more money. He believes the league can break even by next year, but his willingness to spend his own money is not unlimited. For now, he is the sole source of the ISL’s $25 million launch-year budget.

Grigorishin would not say exactly what it would take for him to continue spending beyond the initial three-year plan but acknowledged that downsizing or even closure would be necessary without meaningful revenue.

Swimming is one of the linchpins of the entire Olympics, he said, and if properly marketed, he thinks he can translate that into support for the league. The ISL will form teams and emphasize short, exciting race and meet formats, appealing to fans in ways FINA competitions do not.

“Even if we get 10 percent of the Olympic swimming audience, it’s a huge number, more than enough,” Grigorishin said.

That bet has been made before in Olympic sports by others, who saw opportunity in the gap between the massive viewership of the Games and the near-total lack of visibility in between. But few of those efforts have gotten past initial startup years. That’s partly because the Olympic mystique lends importance to even the most obscure sports, but also because NBC and other rights holders spend a ransom on promotion.

Media and sponsorship deals are yet to be announced for the ISL.

The most important element in the ISL’s success will be talent, Grigorishin said. The ISL has enlisted U.S. Olympic gold medalists Katie Ledecky, Nathan Adrian, Simone Manuel and Ryan Murphy as ambassadors for the league. Ambassadors are expected to participate as well, Grigorishin said, but the athletes’ agents did not return calls seeking clarification about their competitive plans. ISL officials said full rosters will be released within weeks.

Even assuming there is a market for swimming, all startups face challenges in the age of vast entertainment options and tightening corporate marketing budgets, said veteran Olympic sports marketer Bob Heussner, CEO and founder of StrongBridge Sponsorship. “When something new comes along, boy, it had better be damn good, and it had better be compellingly different, if you’re going to get my attention if I’m a consumer and my budget if I’m a sponsor,” Heussner said.