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The International Swimming League’s Konstantin Grigorishin is a rebel with a cause

With the launch of his International Swimming League (ISL), a city-based competition due to arrive in the US and Europe later this year, Ukrainian businessman Konstantin Grigorishin is out to make a splash by championing the rights of an athlete base disillusioned by the direction of their sport.

17 May 2019 Michael Long

He may be on vacation but Konstantin Grigorishin is in a philosophising mood. “Sport,” he says, straining the phone line with his coarse Ukrainian brogue, “is part of culture, of western civilisation, which came from ancient Greece and changed the paradigm. Sport has to follow.”

Taking a moment to choose his words carefully, he adds: “Some sports are already in the modern paradigm, like soccer, like American leagues, like Formula One, like tennis, where you understand your goal and you know what you are doing, so you have a permanent job, you have revenue, and if you’re qualified enough you have a contract with a club or some organiser. But parts of sport are still in the pre-modern paradigm.

“Athletes are waiting for some enlightenment or initiation during the Olympic Games, so they should not care about their revenue. From an employment point of view, all of them are freelancers so they have no insurance, they have no guarantees, and they have to be some kind of religious fanatics of the Olympic movement.”

Grigorishin is the billionaire businessman and philanthropist bankrolling the International Swimming League (ISL), a new city-based competition set to launch in the US and Europe later this year. Setting out his stall, he says the ISL is all about putting power back into the hands of athletes; about championing the right of professional swimmers to make a living they deserve, and to have a greater say in the way their sport is run.

Why is swimming such a popular sport but the competitions are so boring?

Konstantin Grigorishin, ISL founder

“This project is not possible without athlete support,” he continues. “Like each big sports event, even the Olympic Games, you can spend billions of dollars but if athletes will not come, who will care about these facilities and infrastructure? We have to respect that. That is the problem of the IOC and international federations: they don’t respect athletes, they don’t consider them like partners.”

By his own admission, Grigorishin is an independent rebel. It is a role he clearly relishes. Returning to his chosen analogy of institutionalised religion – an analogy he describes as his “philosophical explanation” for launching the ISL – he eagerly characterises international sports federations like FINA, swimming’s global governing body, as out-of-touch, overly bureaucratic organisations whose self-serving hierarchy lives in the past, dictating the rules and governing from on high “like priests in a pre-modern paradigm”.

Elaborating on his religious conceit, he argues that athletes in many sports, not only swimming, have been systematically indoctrinated from a young age to forego material enrichment in favour of an idealistic Olympic fantasy. While it is generally accepted that athletes are the “main assets” of every sport, he says, sportsmen and women have been exploited for financial gain by governing bodies who view them as “an expenditure – not like slaves, even worse”.

“It’s the typical pre-modern paradigm,” he goes on. “They are using a huge propaganda machine to convince kids, like old religions, that the goal of your life is to be on the podium at the Olympic Games. That’s it. But at the same time the Olympic Games is a very successful commercial entity.”

“Each event is a final”

Born in Ukraine and formerly based in Moscow, Grigorishin made his personal fortune in metallurgy. A 53-year-old father of three, he is the largest investor in Energy Standard Group, a Ukrainian utilities firm, and his assets, including a reported US$300 million private art collection, are estimated by Forbes to be worth US$1.3 billion.

Speaking to SportsPro in February whilst on a family skiing holiday in the French resort of Courchevel, Grigorishin readily admits the ISL started life as a passion project. An avid swimming enthusiast, he says he had previously been involved in organising charity meets for youngsters “for many years” but, “as a curious person”, he soon began querying the structure and presentation of the sport.

“Why is swimming such a popular sport but the competitions are so boring?” he recounts. “Why is swimming such a popular sport but there is no money in swimming? And the third question was: is it possible to fix this situation?”

Grigorishin (left) says he experimented with “some different formats” during those charity meets, a process which ultimately led him to settle on the idea of team competition. “Each swimmer, in this format, can perform many times during the show because the recovery process is quite fast, not like athletics, for instance,” he explains. “And of course, team competition is normally more exciting than individual competition.”

The ISL’s plan is to have eight teams of 24 swimmers – 12 men and 12 women – spread equally across Europe and the United States. Several teams will compete in each meet, with two swimmers from each team competing in every race and no preliminary contests.

“Each event is a final,” says Grigorishin, who suggests other aquatic pursuits such as diving and synchronised swimming could eventually be factored into live ISL events. “We are thinking about some ‘sportainment’, so some activities before the match, after the match, maybe even for the host city. Because the swimmers will have no prelims, we can organise clinics for children, for disabled people, for mature swimmers, to create a show and some hype around the event. Each city has quite a strong swimming community and for them, it will be very interesting.”

To conclude its inaugural season, the ISL intends to stage a grand finals event, featuring the league’s top four clubs, at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas this December. It is no coincidence that the season-ending occasion will be held amid the glitz of the entertainment capital of the world. The aim, according to Grigorishin, is to make a splash by bringing some much-needed razzamatazz to a sport that has grown staid and predictable under the auspices of FINA.

It’s not easy to sell something which doesn’t exist yet. But we will try. It’s another challenge

Konstantin Grigorishin, ISL founder

In keeping with the North American model, the ISL will employ a closed, city-based franchise system. Participating clubs will own exclusive rights to promote themselves, build brand equity and drum up fan interest in their respective home markets. They will generate income through ticketing, merchandise and other typical commercial revenue streams, while the ISL will share revenue from sales of media rights and league-wide sponsorships. Each team will have to adhere to salary caps and transfer restrictions, but the ISL will not demand payment of a franchise operating fee, at least from the outset.

“It’s a franchise model but in our model, they [the team owners] should not pay us,” explains Grigorishin. “They have to accept some requirements, to keep some level of the team, to respect the league rules, to have anti-doping rules and prepare a good venue. This is enough for us.”

At the time of writing, discussions with prospective club owners are ongoing, but some have already been confirmed. Among them is Hungary’s three-time Olympic champion Katinka Hosszú, who has been granted ownership of a club, Iron Swim Budapest, as part of a deal that sees her act as an ambassador for the league. Three other clubs have also been publicly announced: ONEflow Aquatic, a German outfit based near Stuttgart and operated by Neckarsulmer Sport-Union; a London-based franchise led by Great Britain’s breaststroke world record holder Adam Peaty, and Grigorishin’s own Energy Standard Club, located in Belek, Turkey.

On the opposite side of the Atlantic, a US subsidiary of the league, ISL USA, has been established to oversee operations in that market. Led by managing director Dmytro Kachurovskyi, a former president of the Ukrainian Swimming Federation, the unit has been tasked with organising the semi-finals and grand finals in Las Vegas, as well as helping US-based teams scout and sign talent and run their own meets.

“The US is a big market itself and especially for swimming,” notes Grigorishin. “More than 30 million people are swimming regularly in the United States. They have a lot of very good swimmers and definitely the US national team is the best swimming team in the world over the last 100 years.”

Grigorishin is confident that “in two years”, demand for team ownership will greatly outstrip supply. He says the league will initially limit club representation in the first four or five years “because we don’t have enough good swimmers in the world, and if we extend the number of the clubs we will dilute the level of the competition”. Upon launch, it is foreseen that some 75 per cent of all current world and Olympic champions will feature in ISL events.

Under the ISL model, athletes will sign central contracts with the league as well as agreeing individual terms with their clubs, which will include insurance and pension plans. The league will pay appearance fees and individual and team bonuses depending on results. The minimum total prize money available for the first season is set at just over US$5.3 million, while athletes who compete for the league-winning team will reportedly receive an additional US$10,000.

Katinka Hosszú, Adam Peaty, Sarah Sjostrom and Federica Pellegrini will all feature in the inaugural ISL season. (Clockwise, L to R)

In 2019 the ISL’s total budget will be approximately US$15 million, although Grigorishin says that figure could rise closer to US$20 million factoring in variable costs such as event logistics and transportation. Grigorishin himself will stump up the entirety of that funding unless further investors or commercial income from broadcast and sponsorship rights are found prior to launch.

To that end, broadcast plans for season one are still being drawn up, but Grigorishin believes swimming harbours considerable untapped potential. With an estimated 300 million swimmers worldwide, it is one of the most practiced sports in the world. Yet Grigorishin says he finds it inexplicable that the sport commands only a fraction of the industry’s global media and sponsorship rights markets, with the best practitioners receiving comparatively little media attention outside of the Olympics and other major international competitions.

“On one side swimming is a super popular sport, the most popular sport during the Olympic Games,” he says, “but on the other hand we don’t have too much swimming on the screens – just once every two years, in the World Championships or the Olympics. Why? Because there are no consistent competitions during the season.

“We have some spontaneous tournaments where some random swimmers come under the supervision of FINA or local federations, but there’s no consistency between them. For that reason, we came to the idea of a league, so seasonal competition, which exists in different formats in all commercially successful sports.”

Grigorishin insists the ISL will help enhance the visibility of swimmers by delivering regular events and building season-long narratives, with the league having set itself the ambitious target of growing its global audience to 100 million over five years.

“I think we could be interesting for broadcasters because we know the sport audience is not growing,” he says. “This is fact, especially in commercially successful sport. But the price of broadcasting rights is booming. So what does it mean? It means that, logically, their profits should shrink. If you have the same audience but you have to pay more to buy the content, your profits should reduce.

“It means that traditional broadcasters should look for some new good content, and I think swimming is good content. It’s not something new; swimming is already popular. So if you compare with traditional big sports, swimming is quite cheap. But the quality of the show, I’m pretty sure we’ll have the same quality and we can generate a lot of content, potentially.”

The ISL will eventually deliver “50 to 60 matches a year” and “300 or 400 hours of content” to broadcasters, Grigorishin adds. That amount of programming is “comparable with a normal soccer league”, but he believes “a social sport” like swimming lends itself particularly well to digital platforms.

“In swimming, you can create this community inside digital media,” he continues. “We have some ideas about that and I’m quite positive, but again, you can be very convincing but finding a potential buyer without a product…we have to organise a competition.

“For this season, it’s a bit of a tough process because sometimes it’s not easy to sell something which doesn’t exist yet. But we will try. It’s another challenge.”

“No reason to fight”: The ISL v FINA

Much of the talk surrounding the formation of the ISL has concerned the league’s ongoing spat with FINA, which has been led since 2009 by its octogenarian president Julio Maglione. On the surface, the dispute is a classic tale of money, power and control, and in an era when the threat of breakaway competitions and private investment is challenging the long-held supremacy of sport’s traditional powers, not least international federations, the creation of Grigorishin’s upstart league was always bound to cause a stir.

While tensions within professional swimming have been simmering for some time, they boiled over towards the end of last year when FINA refused to sanction the ISL’s 2018 Energy for Swim meet, a lucrative event that was due to take place in Italy, with support from the country’s national swimming association, in December.

Explaining its decision, FINA noted that the ISL’s application for sanctioning had not come at least six months before the event in question, as per the governing body’s rules, while it also threatened to ban any swimmers who competed in the event from future international competitions, including the Olympic Games. The Energy for Swim meet was subsequently cancelled, sparking widespread condemnation from the ISL and a host of top swimmers, including Katinka Hosszú, Adam Peaty and South African Olympic champion Chad Le Clos.

British breaststroker Adam Peaty is one of the several big name stars lending their support to the ISL

Following the event’s postponement, Hosszú, together with Americans Michael Andrew and Tom Shields, filed a proposed class action lawsuit against FINA for violating US antitrust laws. Like the ISL, which had filed a separate lawsuit, the athletes claimed FINA’s actions were anti-competitive, with reports stating the federation had demanded a US$50 million fee to officially sanction ISL events.

As noted at the time, the lawsuit was reminiscent of one filed in 2017 against the International Skating Union (ISU) on the grounds that it had a monopoly over its sport. In that case, a judge ruled that the body’s move to block skaters from competing in non-authorised competitions was in breach of European Union (EU) antitrust laws, and that international federations had to be objective, transparent and non-discriminatory when considering independent events.

In December, just days after the lawsuits were filed, further pressure was applied on FINA when the ISL arranged a summit in London to announce the launch of the Professional Swimmers Association, an independent entity whose stated aim is ‘to build a fair partnership with regulators and event organisers’ whilst ensuring ‘the welfare of swimmers and their rights to earn a living’. Lending weight to the move were a host of big names, including Hosszú, Peaty, and more than two dozen Olympic and world champions including Sarah Sjostrom, Ryan Murphy and Cameron van der Burgh.

“I don’t care, ban me if you’ve got to,” was Peaty’s message to FINA. “I’m not bothered because at the end of the day they know they can’t.”

Speaking to the BBC, the 24-year-old added: “We need transparency and 50-50 split of the profits. I love my sport to the moon and back but the main reason people quit swimming all over the world is because there isn’t enough funding. I want to secure the future for the kids who are going to be winning Olympics in 20 years and hopefully making a living out of it.”

By mid-January, the concerns raised by Peaty and his fellow athletes – and widely reported in the media – appeared to have been heeded. Having been conspicuously quiet throughout the dispute, FINA finally backed down. It released a statement confirming that swimmers would be allowed to participate in competitions staged by independent organisers, but that records set at non-sanctioned events would not be recognised by the governing body.

There is no reason to fight. We have never been against FINA, but we are against the FINA monopoly

Andrea di Nino, ISL managing director

At the time, ISL managing director Andrea di Nino described the move as an “implicit admission of guilt” and alleged that FINA had “blatantly copied” the ISL concept by creating its own Champions Swim Series, a similar team-based competition that will offer a US$4 million prize fund, and which will feature many of the ISL competitors – including, intriguingly, those currently suing FINA – when it launches this year.

Whatever the merits of di Nino’s argument, it was clear that feathers had been ruffled in swimming’s corridors of power. Following FINA’s U-turn, Grigorishin went on record calling for a “binding” and “enforceable” agreement that would protect both parties’ interests, as well as those of the athletes, in accordance with the laws of the US and the EU.

“I’m ready to sign a contract or agreement with FINA where we respect each other like organisers of competitions, to respect the calendar of each other, to respect some rules,” he insists now. “There is no reason to fight. We have never been against FINA, but we are against the FINA monopoly because the next step, as I said to the athletes, [will be that] you will ask FINA to go to shower. You will ask approval from FINA. This is ridiculous.”

Such grievances go beyond the issues of athlete rights and compensation to call into question the very role of the international federation. While Grigorishin is open to collaborating with FINA, he believes it should be the purpose of the global body to set regulations, establish world rankings and safeguard the sport, not to organise for-profit events and international competitions that inhibit the ability for athletes to earn a living elsewhere. “It’s a conflict of interest,” he says. “If you’re a regulator, you should not make profit on that. They have to change their mentality.”

He adds: “We don’t accept any monopoly in sport. Athletes can take part in each competition, so there should be some competition between organisers. This is the point. When we speak about that with athletes and explain our position […] we find some resonance with their desires.

“For them, it’s really unfair. They understand that their level of talent and their level of effort is not less than [that of athletes in] many commercially successful sports like tennis, like soccer, like basketball. But their revenue is a hundred times less than those sports. Why? We tried to explain to them that you have to change, you have to convert your sport into a new paradigm.”

Several top athletes have claimed the actions of world swimming body Fina, which is led by president Julio Maglione, are anti-competitive

Indeed, the paradigm is beginning to shift. Across all sports, not only in swimming, athletes are growing increasingly aware of their commercial value and the power they wield, both individually and in groups. At a time when digital disruption, socio-economic developments and today’s ever-more disintermediated media landscape are altering the industry’s traditional power dynamics, athletes are seeking to assert their influence in new and myriad ways. While some have spearheaded the creation of their own breakaway competitions outside of the international federation structure, many are now finding their collective voice in debates concerning political, financial, social, governance and anti-doping matters.

A recent report by the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations (ASOIF), the umbrella body for international federations represented in the Summer Olympics, noted this trend. It pointed out that athletes are starting ‘to act more independently and autonomously’ in a manner that is likely to have ‘significant knock-on effects’ for sport as a whole. The report also suggested that federations must reevaluate their roles and devise new strategies for how best to deal with the emergence of privately owned competitions, urging them to decide between competing against those entities or incentivising athletes to stay within their existing structures.

“It’s normal,” says Grigorishin. “When the paradigm is changing, some previous institutions are falling down. It’s normal, and you have to create new institutions.

“In the new paradigm, institutions like international federations and the IOC, at least for professional athletes, are not effective anymore. I made this example in one of my interviews that approximately 1,000 pro athletes that make value in Olympic sport, they support more than 80,000 bureaucrats. This is one of the reasons why athletes in Olympic sports have no fair revenue.

“The challenge for traditional sport now is esports and virtual reality and Netflix, which have tried to conquer the entertainment market. Sport has to change to survive in these new circumstances. We have to think about that. It’s so far from the IOC and international federations because they have no idea how to work with that, how to survive with that.”

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