An international swimming champion will be crowned Sunday for the first time since COVID-19 disrupted the sport, cutting short FINA’s Champions Swim Series and pushing back the Olympic Games. The International Swimming League’s final will end in Budapest, even as the upstart pro organization faces executive departures and accusations of unpaid wages.
After an inaugural season held from October to December 2019—the eve of the pandemic—the ISL decided to hold a second season despite the additional costs. Last year’s campaign concluded in Las Vegas following events in four countries; this time around, 300 competitors have been staying in a hotel in Hungary’s capital since mid-October.
By investing roughly $25 million in the bubble setup, league founder Konstantin Grigorishin—a Ukrainian businessman reportedly worth over $1 billion—was able to demonstrate his commitment to the project. Over $11 million was earmarked for athlete stipends and prize money.
Grigorishin said one of his main priorities this year was to change swimmers’ view of his venture. “I think it’s happened for the majority of them,” he said. “They’re now taking ISL seriously, not just as some funny competition.”
To create fan-friendly two-hour events, the ISL adopted a team format, with 10 clubs tied to locations across North America, Europe and Asia competing in nearly 40 races during each match. Two American and two European teams remain, though individual male and female swimmers on each team hail from around the globe. American two-time Olympic gold medalist Caeleb Dressel represents the Cali Condors.
“I think everyone kind of thought of it as an anomaly last year, like a new spring football league,” broadcaster Rowdy Gaines told Awful Announcing. “That’s not what it is. It’s not going away.”
This year’s champions will be determined on CBS Sports Network Sunday, starting at noon. CBS inked a multiyear deal with the ISL earlier this year, as the league prioritized reach in its latest round of agreements.
“The biggest challenge is time,” said ISL advisor and FocalSport founder Mark Noonan, who helped negotiate the CBS contract. “It takes time to build a global sports league.” With no fans this year, Grigorishin is now looking to break even starting in 2022.
In the meantime, ISL has faced claims of missing pay following the departures of managing director and head of commercial operations Hubert Montcoudiol and one team’s general manager. Service provider LiveWire Sport said in October that it is owed “a six-figure sum” dating back to the ISL’s first season.
“The way [Grigorishin] acts has to be known and has to be stopped,” Montcoudiol said. “It’s not a normal way to run a business.”
He added that he still supports the league’s mission of creating a professional club system for swimming but has now heard of others inside ISL who are also due wages. “It’s a huge disappointment,” said Montcoudiol.
Grigorishin responded by saying, “We’re happy Hubert left us because he didn’t fulfill his obligations.” As for other issues, he said, “We will fulfill all of our contract obligations, maybe with some delay due to COVID, but we will fulfill them.”
Following this weekend’s final, the ISL will determine whether it will stage the 2021 season before or after the rescheduled Summer Olympics, which will run from July 23 to August 8 in Tokyo.
“Some swimmers may use us as preparation for the Olympics,” Grigorishin said, “but maybe for some others in the future, they will use the Olympics as prep for ISL.”