By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) – Ukrainian energy tycoon Konstantin Grigorishin is leading a revolution in the pool and he has no doubt that swimmers will be the winners.
The 54-year-old’s International Swimming League (ISL) has made a splash with a fast-paced, television-friendly two-hour format pitting teams from Europe and the United States in dynamic competition.
The league took the plunge in Indianapolis in October, with Grigorishin bankrolling it to the tune of $20 million of which seven million is set aside for athletes and teams in prize money.
“Everything is on the right track, it’s in the range of my anticipation,” he said at a sold-out meet at the London Aquatics Centre to decide the two European teams going through to next month’s finale in Las Vegas.
“It doesn’t concern me too much that we don’t have sponsors yet…we have some strong interest from very big companies, but we need some time.
“The athletes are happy, the public engaged, the dynamic of competition is really good.”
Adam Peaty, Britain’s breaststroke world record holder and Olympic 100m champion, said the league was exceeding his expectations and shaking up a sport stuck in the same lane for decades.
“This is creating a market for those who want to watch it and new fans as well. I think it will really start to kick off in the next few seasons on a more epic scale,” the 24-year-old told Reuters.
Australian Cate Campbell, a double Olympic relay champion, said it “changed the way you look at swimming.”
Grigorishin is already planning to expand next year to 10 teams, the two new ones most likely coming from Canada and Japan, and more matches including some in Australia.
The season, starting after the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, will run from September through to April and could even stretch into May.
“If you want to have good exposure, you have to compete more often,” Grigorishin told Reuters.
“Maybe after we will expand even more the number of clubs, but I don’t think we need to have more than 12 in the next few years because we would dilute the level of competition.”
The ISL and three swimmers including Hungary’s triple Olympic gold medallist Katinka Hosszu, took action last December to challenge FINA’s control of international competitions and that remains ongoing.
The move followed the cancellation of an ISL event in Turin after the world body threatened sanctions against those participating.
A professional swimmers association also remains in the works.
“Every war finishes one day, but the question is with what conditions?,” said Grigorishin.
“We are ready to make some settlement with FINA. It’s not our main purpose to fight with FINA. We protect swimmers, we protect ourselves but we have to set up some real conditions between us and FINA.
“Some official document where we split responsibilities, that we recognise each other, respect both calendars, all of this stuff.”
Asked how likely that was, he replied: “Not yet. But one day it will happen, no doubt.”
Saturday’s evening event at the Olympic pool, broadcast by the BBC, provided plenty of excitement with a pulsating light show and a lively crowd cheering on teams including Peaty’s London Roar.
The Roar’s Australian teenager Minna Atherton rewarded them with a 200m backstroke that was only 0.02 seconds outside the short course world record.
The ISL revolution, as far as Grigorishin is concerned, is made for television.
“How many opportunities do you have to watch them (swimmers) on the TV? Maybe once in two or four years, and for one minute,” he said of a sport that is a top ticket at Olympic Games but lacks airtime in between.
“And now they have a chance to have fantastic exposure, hours on the TV, and their commercial value completely changed,” he said.
“Of course they are receiving prize money and appearance money but for them I think the commercial value is more important.”
Tier two swimmers, good professionals who might never be Olympic champions with the big personal sponsorship deals, could also benefit.
“Now they realise, OK maybe I’ll never be an Olympic champion but still I’m very useful for the team,” said the Ukrainian.
“I’m receiving my prize money. Like in the NBA (basketball). Not everybody is LeBron James, but they are still getting very good salaries.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Toby Davis)