International Swimming League hold summit to discuss swimming power struggle

Posted in Employment, labor and pensions

Author: Tom Maturi

In December 2018, some of the world’s top swimmers gathered at a summit hosted by the International Swimming League (ISL).  The ISL, led by Ukrainian energy tycoon Konstantin Grigorishin, is looking to challenge the Fédération Internationale de Natation’s (FINA) control over international swimming competitions and it stated that the aim of the event was to provide athletes with “the tools to build a brighter future for their sport”.  Grigorishin has previously criticised the fact that swimmers have “no salary, social guarantees, no welfare, no medical and life insurance, no pension rights”  despite generating huge sums of money for FINA.  In 2016 and 2017, for example, FINA earned a reported US$118 million in gross revenues, of which only 12.5 per cent was paid to athletes in the form of prize money.

The two-day event was held on 18 and 19 December 2018 and was attended by 30 current swimmers, as well as some retired former professionals. The ISL has previously voiced its intention to launch a swimming series of professional team matches, with greater prize money for athletes than is currently on offer through FINA’s competitions, as well as creating a global Swimmers’ Association, which will represent athletes with a view to building a fair partnership with regulators and event organisers. 

The ISL had originally planned its inaugural swimming competition to take place in Italy in December 2018. FINA, however, declared the event as “non-approved”[2] as it was convened at short notice and FINA also threatened sanctions against participating athletes, including banning them from the World Championships and Olympic Games.  Consequently, in November 2018, the Italian Swimming Federation announced that the ISL event would not go ahead, a decision that British Olympic champion Adam Peaty criticised.  Following this, FINA launched its own Champions Swim Series, with the highest ever prize fund of around US$3.9 million on offer.  This sum, however, is still thought to be well below what the ISL had originally planned for its inaugural competition.

Subsequently, three professional swimmers (Katinka Hosszu, Michael Andrew and Tom Shields) have filed a class action lawsuit against FINA for violating United States antitrust laws. According to the press release issued on their behalf on 7 December 2018, the lawsuit was only submitted after FINA had demanded a US$50 million fee to approve ISL events.  The ISL also filed a separate lawsuit as it too reportedly believes that FINA’s actions were anti-competitive.

Grigorishin had previously indicated that he hoped FINA would acknowledge and co-operate with the ISL’s vision instead of working against it, stating that it would be “easy to arrange our fixtures without conflict as they have only one major event per year”[3].  Indeed, the proposed ISL event is expected to launch one month after the FINA World Championships and will reportedly see twelve teams, six from Europe and six from the United States, compete for places in end-of-season grand finals to be held in Las Vegas.

At the summit, it was also announced that Australian swimmers will be able to compete for European and American clubs, with a reported prize pool of US$5.3 million on offer at the ISL competition. The ISL has also indicated that the prize money from its series could rise even higher if the league is able to attract new streams of revenue, such as through sponsorship. 

Unsurprisingly, the ISL’s proposals have been extremely popular with professional swimmers, and Adam Peaty has gone as far as to challenge FINA to ban him from future swimming events in light of his continued vocal support for the ISL[4].  In the coming months, it will be interesting to see how this power struggle between the two organisations plays out as the ISL looks to promote itself as an organising body in swimming.

[1] https://swimswam.com/isl-london-summit-11-olympic-and-18-world-champions-to-discuss-swimmers-association/

[2] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-swimming-fina-isl-idUSKBN1OC2J3

[3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/swimming/46625942

[4] See footnote 3.

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