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International Swimming League Wants to Give Swimming a Permanent Audience

Launching in October, the ISL aims to gain a following with its team-focused format and lineup of swimming stars like Katie Ledecky and Ryan Murphy.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Ukrainian billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin was never an elite swimmer. But just over a decade ago, he became fascinated with the sport and saw an opportunity to make his mark in the water.

“This is the most popular Olympic sport, with hundreds of millions of people watching swimming during the Olympic games, but financially, it’s a really poor sport,” Grigorishin said. “This was like a challenge to myself—how to make swimming more popular from a spectator point of view.”

Now, Grigorishin is the founder and main financial backer of the International Swimming League (ISL), a new eight-team league for elite swimmers with clubs based out of the U.S. and Europe. League ambassadors and participants of the ISL include Olympic medalists like Katie Ledecky, Nathan Adrian, Simone Manuel and Ryan Murphy.

READ MORE: Jaguars’ Unique Arrangement Builds U.K. Audience

To fulfill his vision of growing the sport, Grigorishin founded the ISL to offer fans a more consistent product and fill the gaps between Olympic years.

“It’s not possible to create a permanent audience for swimming if you have just one great event once every four years,” he said. “Our suggestion is if we create some permanent presence of swimming on screens during the whole season, we will definitely create a permanent audience… If you create some good format, I think sport lovers will come.”

Clubs will earn revenue through ticketing, merchandising and local sponsorships, while the league as a whole will lean on media rights and global sponsorship in addition to funding from investors.

This year, each team has $150,000 to pay its athletes, and swimmers also have the opportunity to earn extra performance-based prize money. Participants sign a contract with both the ISL and their teams, and revenue will be split equally between the league and swimmers. The ISL is not the first opportunity for swimmers to earn wages for competing; swimmers can win prize money at various FINA (International Swimming Federation) and USA Swimming events. But Grigorishin believes his league has put enough on the table to attract the world’s top athletes.

Dmytro Kachurovskyi, the ISL’s program development manager, believes visibility could be another major benefit for the swimmers.

“No one knows swimmers,” he said. “Because of the ISL, swimmers will be known by the public, and that gives them the opportunity to raise their commercial value.

General managers recruit their own swimmers for their gender-balanced teams, selecting 12 men and 12 women. Swimmers will compete for team points during meets, which will be formatted in short-course meters, unlike the Olympics’ traditional long-course style.

“We are developing swimming as a team sport, not as an individual sport, and that is a huge difference,” Kachurovskyi said. “It’s not interesting for fans of Katie Ledecky or Nathan Adrian to watch a two-hour show because there are only two minutes when their swimmer is in the water. Now, when Katie Ledecky becomes part of the team—and until the last minute, you will not know the outcome of this match—you will be interested to watch.”

Despite the presence of USA Swimming and FINA, Kachurovskyi claims that the ISL’s primary challenger is not other swim organizations.

“We think about ourselves not as a sports organization but as a sports content production company,” he said. “We are developing a show which is unique, and I would say we understand our main competitors are not federations or Olympic committees. Our main competitors are companies like Netflix who are producing content.”

With that mindset, Grigorishin created the ISL with entertainment value at the forefront.

The vision is electric, and the competition and show around this is quite a production,” said Kaitlin Sandeno, general manager of the Washington, D.C.-based ISL club. “It’s very fan-oriented. It’s a swim meet that really brings fans and masses to rally around our amazing sport.”

That production will reach its peak at the championship competition in a temporary pool at Las Vegas’s Mandalay Bay Events Center, which seats 12,000.

The league still has major details to iron out before the first competition in October, though. League officials are currently in talks with media companies for broadcasting rights. Once a media partner is chosen, the league will seek out sponsorship deals.

Grigorishin admitted there are no guarantees when it comes to the league’s success.

“Of course, now it’s just some kind of speculation,” he said. “I strongly believe in it, but only experimentation can prove this estimation or speculation…It’s a question of belief, so we will see—[we will] just experiment and confirm or destroy this model.”

Even with that uncertainty, swimming fans can take solace in the fact that the ISL will likely be around at least through 2021, as the league’s budget is confirmed through the next three years.

The ISL is already thinking ahead, too, with plans to implement a longer season and a salary cap next year, pending agreement by the teams’ managers.

READ MORE: NHL Turns to Corner Ice Placements to Grow On-Ice Ad Revenue

“The beauty of the sport is unpredictability,” Grigorishin said. “We should have some kind of salary cap to keep the intrigue, unpredictability, and have a salary cap to restrict the possibility of one crazy owner. It’s in favor of spectator interest.”

Between the unique team format and the emphasis on fan experience, the ISL is an unprecedented approach to professional swimming. But for Grigorishin and his team, it’s about more than just developing this new league. They have their eyes set on revolutionizing the world of swimming.

“That is the challenge for us—how to help swimming to be part of the future, not of the past,” Kachurovskyi said.

Bailey Knecht is a Northeastern University graduate and has worked for New Balance, the Boston Bruins and the Northeastern and UMass Lowell athletic departments. She covers media and marketing for Front Office Sports, with an emphasis on women's sports and basketball. She can be contacted at bailey@frntofficesport.com.

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Meet the WNBA’s New Boss

Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert will become the first commissioner of the WNBA and the first woman to lead a Big Four professional services firm in the U.S.

Front Office Sports

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

For the first time ever, the WNBA will have a commissioner. Before now, all of the league’s previous leaders like Val Ackerman and Lisa Borders were given the title of president. 

Cathy Engelbert, the current CEO of Deloitte, will take control of the role on July 17th and will report directly to Adam Silver. 

What should you know?

1. By the time she is done at Deloitte, Engelbert will have spent more time at the company (33 years) than the WNBA has been a league (23 years)

2. Engelbert is the first female to lead a Big Four professional services firm in the U.S.

3. She is the fifth person to lead the league after Val Ackerman (1997-2005), Donna Orender (2005-10), Laurel Richie (2011-15) and Lisa Borders (2016-2018)

4. Engelbert has spent the past four years in charge of Deloitte’s U.S. operation.

Basketball is in her blood…

Although she might be an accountant by trade, Engelbert is no stranger to the game of basketball. 

According to Bob Hille of Sporting News, she played at Lehigh for Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw and was a team captain as a senior. Her father Kurt also played and was drafted in 1957 by the Pistons.

What are they saying?

“Cathy is a world-class business leader with a deep connection to women’s basketball, which makes her the ideal person to lead the WNBA into its next phase of growth. The WNBA will benefit significantly from her more than 30 years of business and operational experience including revenue generation, sharp entrepreneurial instincts and proven management abilities.” – Adam Silver on the hiring of Engelbert

“I think that’s probably one of the reasons I was selected for this role, to come in and bring a business plan to build the WNBA into a real business and a thriving business, quite frankly.” – Engelbert to ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel

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Adam Silver Wants More Gender Diversity

The NBA commissioner states his desire to get more women into the sports industry. The NBA currently has a 31.6 percent ratio of women in team management.

Front Office Sports

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Photo Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else. 

If Adam Silver has his way, 50 percent of the new incoming NBA officials will be women.

That number applies to coaches too, Silver said speaking at the Economic Club of Washington.

How do the leagues stack up?

The following numbers, outside of MLB, come from 2018 reports put together by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. MLB is the first league to have a report done on it this year.

1. NBA – 31.6% of team management are women / 37.2% of team professional admins are women

2. NFL – 22.1% of team senior admins are women / 35% of team professional admins are women

3. MLB – 28.6% of team senior admins are women / 26% of team professional admins are women

4. MLS – 26.5% of team senior admins are women / 31.6% of team professional admins are women

5. WNBA – 48.6% of team VPs and above are women / 58% of team managers to senior directors are women

6. NHL – No report done

Quotes from Silver… 

“It’s an area, frankly, where I’ve acknowledged that I’m not sure how it was that it remained so male-dominated for so long. Because it’s an area of the game where physically, certainly, there’s no benefit to being a man, as opposed to a woman, when it comes to refereeing.”

“The goal is going forward, it should be roughly 50-50 of new officials entering in the league. Same for coaches, by the way. We have a program, too. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be coaching men’s basketball.”

That’s not all Silver wants to see change…

Silver, who has been adamant about getting rid of the one-and-done rule, provided some clarity as to when that might be achieved.

According to the commissioner, the 2022 NBA Draft will likely be the first one since the 2005 NBA Draft to allow high school players to go straight into the league rather than playing a season in college first.

Citing “active discussions” with the NBPA, Silver noted that they are still “a few years away.”

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“I Thought This Was a Good Deal”: AAF Vendors Speak Out

Amidst the spring football league’s collapse, countless vendors are still waiting to get paid for services rendered.

Robert Silverman

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Ultimately, it was the little things that best told the story of how dire things had gotten for the Alliance of American Football (AAF), an ex-team social media manager said. Starting in Week Five, social media managers no longer traveled with the team for road games. Even before, they’d doubled up on hotel rooms. The final bit of penny-pinching was the most bizarre: For the eighth and final AAF game, social was told Getty’s photographers would not be in attendance. Instead they would have to rely on “generic images,” making the job vastly more difficult.

Less than a week later, on April 2, the chaotic, short-lived lifespan of the spring professional football league, launched in March 2018 by filmmaker Charlie Ebersol, the son of venerated TV producer Dick Ebersol, came to an abrupt end. A little over two weeks after that, the AAF filed for bankruptcy, as first reported by Front Office Sports.

In the aftermath, stories like the social media manager’s have become ubiquitous. A  former player was sent a medical bill for treatment received during training camp. Scores of others reportedly had to cover their own airfare or were sent four-figure bills for hotel rooms. There was the class-action lawsuit filed by two players, claiming that ownership misled them about the league’s long-term fiscal solvency. Founders pointed fingers at one another after the debt-ridden league came crashing down. All manner of now ex-employees, from team officials to players,  learned they were out of a job thanks to social media.

The league’s bankruptcy filing revealed that $48.3 million was still owed to a variety of creditors against a $11.3 million in concrete assets, a scant $536,160.68 of which remained in the league’s bank accounts. Moreover, the AAF informed the thousands of creditors that any attempts to recoup their losses would be pointless right now, because, per Sports Business Journal, its coffers are entirely bare… “If it later appears that assets are available to pay creditors, the clerk will send you another notice telling you that you may file a proof of claim and stating the deadline,” the filing states.

But like the social media manager, many of those selfsame creditors began to suspect the AAF was on rocky financial ground long before the league officially pulled the plug.

Shortly after Tom Dundon, the majority owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, who built his financial empire on the backs of subprime auto loans, bought a majority share of the financially-strapped league, he started to cut corners, looking to pare down expenses by any means necessary according to a report by Sports Illustrated. “As soon as Dundon took over, our f——— expense reports were getting approved out of Dallas,” where Dundon Capital Partners’ office is located, a former mid-level AAF employee told the magazine. (Dundon did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent via the Carolina Hurricanes. The form to contact Dundon Capital Partners on their website was removed at some point in the past few months )

With the AAF bleeding millions each and every week it remained in existence, per USA Today, Dundon deemed it necessary to scrimp and save wherever possible including on the margins. So vendors—companies that supplied locker room supplies, traveling equipment and more—were approached hat in hand and offered less than the full amount owed by the AAF.

READ MORE: AAF Files for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy 

While AAF officials served as the point of contact, two sources involved with the negotiations told Front Office Sports that the debt-clearing plan was conceived and ordered by Dundon’s financial team. If that meant exploiting AAF officials’ pre-existing relationships with vendors and playing on the faith placed in the league, so be it. As one former AAF official told Front Office Sports, it was “just a shit situation.”

Some of the companies did take the lowball offers, but others refused to accept less, insisting on full payment. It didn’t matter. Both paths led to vendors getting stiffed by the AAF. Dundon’s financial team kept stalling, promising the equivalent of “the check’s in the mail,” right up until the moment when the AAF closed its doors for good.

Now those vendors have been reduced to poring over the bankruptcy filings. They know all too well that, despite being out five or six figures, they’re way at the back of the line, trailing giant conglomerates like MGM and Aramark which are owed millions. And they’re not happy about it.

“I definitely feel scammed,” one vendor said.

(more…)

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