The made-for-television format promises to help elite swimmers build their commercial value.
It's a question every swimming family has asked: Why isn't swimming a popular professional sport? After all, swimming is one of the most watched Olympic sports. It only makes sense that it would be popular among spectators during non-Olympic years.So the theory goes.Like most swimming families, the question crossed Konstantin Grigorishin's mind a time or two while he was watching his son Ivan climb the international swimming ranks. He has his idea of how to popularize the sport and has enough money to give it some legs. He started the International Swimming League (ISL) and after some fits and starts the League completed it's first season in 2019.The swim meets run in a highly produced format that is somewhat reminiscent of a swim meet. I say "somewhat reminiscent" because there are swimmers competing in a swimming pool, but that's about as far as the ISL-to-swim meet comparison goes. The format promotes teams over individuals and winning over times. There are mixed relays and skins events. It's a format which leaves viewers (who are also swimmers) wondering if this is a high-performance workout, or a competition?With the creation of the ISL a pro tier has been established in swimming. The potential boost to top swimmer's marketability is a draw for elite swimmers whose current commercial value hovers around zero, and who mostly operate on a shoestring budget. How to survive financially while training at an elite level has been an enduring question faced by these swimmers and one which the ISL hopes to answer.There are two important reasons swimmers are competing in this league: 1. Money and 2. More racing opportunities.Even though the ISL is in its infancy, I wonder if it will last. The answer is probably yes, as long as Grigorishin is willing to pump money into the league—which could be a long time.Will it be successful? If competing with Arena Football or Roller Derby is your definition of success then, yes. By the way, at least one of those leagues is finished. Otherwise no.Swimming is a popular Olympic sport.This really isn't a complicated as it may seem. The Olympics stand for the excellence of competition and human achievement. An Olympic medal count, by proxy, measures the success of a nation. People are engaged during the Olympics because of their nationalism. They simply want their county to win the medal count. Swimming for them is easy to understand. The first person to touch the wall, wins. You don't need to be a swimmer to understand it.Track and Field, Gymnastics, Swimming and Wrestling are arguably the cornerstone events of the modern Olympics. Although people like to watch swimming during the Olympics, they really know very little about the sport. Try this test for proof: Ask your local lifeguard what they think of Caeleb Dressel, and chances are 50/50 they even know who he is. Ask them about Simone Manuel or Regan Smith and you'll probably draw a complete blank. That's the local lifeguard whose life is attached to swimming. The point is, people care about competitive swimming during the Olympics, but that excitement doesn't necessarily translate into their regular everyday life.Why don't people get excited about swimming in the way they do about golf, auto racing, or—dare say—bowling?This question has a simple answer. When people play golf, they actually play golf. They can imagine making a shot like Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson and may, on a rare occasion, do so. They have a personal, intimate experience with how hard it is to make good shots. Their wonderment of the game is renewed each time they watch professionals play because they can measure the cavernous gap between their own play and the professionals.The sames goes for auto racing. Just about everyone drives a car, and most have gone pretty fast at some point. When spectators watch auto racing they are able to measure the gap between their own driving skills and the professionals. It is this measurement that captures the imagination of spectators.Swimming to the average person often means a party—going near the water but not necessarily getting in. Putting on a cap and goggles and turning some laps for time is a completely ridiculous idea for most people. So when they see professional swimmers going fast in a pool, they have little personal experience to make a mental measurement between their own speed and the pros.It's why professional bowling will always draw more viewers than professional swimming. When people go bowling, they actually bowl. Then they are amazed when they see how professional bowlers consistently score nearly 300 points per game.Swimming is at a distinct disadvantage as a professional sport because the target audience simply doesn't do it.ISL is attempting make swimming fit a television format that Grigorishin thinks is optimal. It's a blind misconception that a snazzy television format equates to viewership. If success was dependent on an optimal television format, then professional golf should be a total disaster. But it's not.That's because people play golf, they like to imagine themselves playing great golf, and love to watch people who can actually do it.I'm always happy to see people spend their own money on an idea they believe in. For that, my hat's off to Grigorishin. As long as he keeps funding the idea, some swimmers will benefit financially until they can have their time to shine on the real stage of swimming--the Olympics.In the end, however, the ISL will do for swimming what Ice Capades did for Ice Skating: nothing.