17 May 2019

By: Sport Industry Group

Writing for Sport Industry Group, Ben Nichols shares his views on why the International Swimming League is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to athlete-led reform in sport.

Ben is the former Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Commonwealth Games Federation and former Head of Media Relations for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Ben now runs his own communications consultancy, Ben Nichols Communications, and counts the new athlete force for good movement ‘Global Athlete’ as one of his clients.

Over the past year or two, it’s been difficult to ignore a dramatic surge in the athlete voice. The shift in athletes speaking up for how sport is run has been palpable, whether it be athletes calling for liberalisation of their marketing and commercial rights at the Olympics, reform of the anti-doping system or, more broadly, a desire for fairer representation at the decision-making table.

During this seemingly positive insurgency, we have witnessed on cause-driven campaigns, conferences, statements and social media battles from athletes committed to predominantly one thing: changing the way sport is run and for athletes to be at the heart of that change. While these mini-surges from athletes have been noticeable, impactful even (securing some “mini wins” along the way), they have not resulted in dramatic changes at the sporting level – until now.

Enter the ISL – or more precisely, the International Swimming League – which first emerged late last year following one of swimming’s biggest international stars, Adam Peaty, calling for the sport’s governing body, FINA, to modernise. "[Fina] need to listen to the athletes and hear what they want instead of saying: 'You need it this way.' The whole sport needs to change and that's something I'm very passionate about…it’s like we’re still in 1970," Peaty told BBC Sport in words that are hard to see as anything other than a microcosm for the broader athlete reformist movement that has emerged.

Initially cancelled, the ISL finally got the green light to launch after Peaty issued a clear intention to compete in the new competition, saying to FINA “Ban me if you've got to…I'm not bothered because at the end of the day they [FINA] know they can't."

With the ISL announcing its plans publicly in London in March this year, its timing has led to it being viewed as a prime example of the broader trend of athlete-led reform that is currently sweeping its way through international sport.

Collectively, athletes have been calling for a fairer share of prize money, more freedom with their advertising rights, and a meaningful say on how their sport operates and is governed. And nowhere is this clearer than through the advent of the ISL, which, aside from Peaty, has leading stars Katie Ledecky, Nathan Adrian, Simone Manuel and Ryan Murphy onboard. And it is the direct result of a growing feeling permeating throughout international sport, that the way sport (Olympic and Paralympic, especially) is stuck in the past, and failing to grasp the clear entertainment opportunities and new fanbases that are there for the taking in today’s society.

As the ISL’s Program Development Manager, Dmytro Kachurovskyi recently explained: “We think of ourselves not as a sports organization but as a sports content production company. We are developing a show that is unique…our main competitors are not federations or Olympic committees. Our main competitors are companies like Netflix who are producing content.” Radical? Maybe. A sign of things to come. Definitely

While the ISL still has to prove it is worth its salt, it is making all the right noises in terms of how swimmers see the way the sport needs to move. Athletes being paid, full gender equality of 12 men and 12 women on each of the franchised teams – four of the teams are in the United States and four are in Europe – and a zero tolerance to doping, with former doping violators banned from competing.  It’s a bold, ambitious, incredibly modern message that the ISL is sending, but one that seems to be a lightning bolt for others in the sport to follow.

There is a prevailing view of some sports viewing themselves as a regulator, a “public company” of sorts, not as a go-getting, sleeves-rolled-up private company that wants to change things, embrace new opportunities and unleash entrepreneurial spirit for the benefit of athletes. As ISL Founder, Konstantin Grigorishin explained recently: “Somebody has to regulate and set up the rules in swimming. If you are a regulator, you should not be organizer of competition. In the future, FINA will have to make a choice.”

With sports vying for fans in an ever-more congested marketplace, and with athletes themselves increasingly leading the charge for changing the way their sports are run, this toss-up between a public company regulatory mindset on the one hand, and a free-spirited, entrepreneurial mindset on the other, is going to become the central issue for all sports to face. Market forces often determine the direction of an industry, and at this crossroads for sport, the signs are that this will be no different.

The opportunities for sport to embrace the entrepreneurialism are endless, and must be taken.