Is the ISL about to lead a great big march for international sports?
Athlete activism and power has long been part of the culture and sporting fabric in the United States, seen as a healthy feature of modern-day sports. Away from American shores, the athlete voice in Olympic sports has lagged far behind. However, that’s all changing, and fast. Whether it be athletes calling for liberalization of their marketing and commercial rights at the Olympics, reform of the anti-doping system or, more broadly, a desire for fairer representation at the decision-making table, change is coming.
During this positive insurgency, there have been athletes winning the battle of ideas on social media, conferences calling for change, and cause-driven campaigns. No matter the channel for voicing their views, athletes have been single-minded in their request: They have called for changes to the way sport is run and for athletes to be at the heart of that change. While these mini-surges from athletes have been noticeable, they have not resulted in seismic changes at the sporting level — until now.
Enter the International Swimming League — or ISL as it will be more commonly known — which first emerged late last year after one of swimming’s biggest international stars, Adam Peaty, called for the sport’s governing body, FINA, to modernize. “[FINA] need to listen to the athletes and hear what they want instead of saying, ‘You need it this way.’ The whole sport needs to change and that’s something I’m very passionate about … it’s like we’re still in 1970,” Peaty told BBC Sport in words that are hard to see as anything other than a microcosm for the broader athlete reformist movement that has emerged. Initially canceled, the ISL finally got the green light to launch after Peaty issued a clear intention to compete in the new competition, saying to FINA: “Ban me if you’ve got to … I’m not bothered because at the end of the day, they [FINA] know they can’t.”
With the ISL announcing its plans publicly in London earlier this year, and its team rosters debuting this month, many are viewing this startup league as a prime example of the broader trend of athlete-led reform that is sweeping its way through international sport. Collectively, athletes have been calling for a fairer share of prize money, more freedom with their advertising rights, and a meaningful say on how their sport operates and is governed. And nowhere is this clearer than through the advent of the ISL, which, aside from Peaty, has leading American stars Katie Ledecky, Nathan Adrian, Simone Manuel and Ryan Murphy on board. And it is the direct result of a growing feeling spreading throughout international sport, that sport (Olympic and Paralympic, especially) is stuck in the past and failing to grasp the clear entertainment opportunities and new fan bases that are there for the taking. As the ISL’s program development manager, Dmytro Kachurovskyi, recently explained: “We think of ourselves not as a sports organization but as a sports content production company. We are developing a show that is unique … our main competitors are not federations or Olympic committees. Our main competitors are companies like Netflix who are producing content.” Radical? Maybe. A sign of things to come. Definitely. Welcome? You bet.
While the ISL still has to prove it is worth its salt, it is making all the right noises in terms of how swimmers see the way the sport needs to move. Athletes being paid, full gender equality of 12 men and 12 women on each of the franchised teams — four teams in the U.S. and four in Europe — and a zero tolerance to doping, with former doping violators banned from competing. It’s a bold, ambitious, incredibly modern message that the ISL is sending, but one that seems to be a lightning bolt for others in the sport to follow.
Outside the United States — and particularly in Olympic sports — there is a prevailing view of some sports viewing themselves as a regulator, a “public company” of sorts, not as a go-getting, sleeves-rolled-up private company that wants to change things, embrace new opportunities and unleash entrepreneurial spirit for the benefit of athletes (the likes of which we have seen in the U.S. for decades). As ISL founder Konstantin Grigorishin explained to media recently: “Somebody has to regulate and set up the rules in swimming. If you are a regulator, you should not be an organizer of competition. In the future, FINA will have to make a choice.”
With sports vying for fans in an ever-more congested marketplace, and with athletes themselves increasingly leading the charge for changing the way their sports are run, this toss-up between a public company regulatory mindset on the one hand and a free-spirited, entrepreneurial mindset on the other is going to become the central issue for all sports to face. Market forces often determine the direction of an industry, and at this crossroads for sport, the signs are that this will be no different.
The opportunities for sport to embrace entrepreneurialism are endless, and must be taken.
Ben Nichols is CEO of international sports communications consultancy Ben Nichols Communications. He is the former director of communications and public affairs for the Commonwealth Games Federation and former head of media relations for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).