Investment, Politics & Governance, Sponsorship, Rugby, Swimming, Global

At Large: Does the Fina v ISL battle show the day of the sports body is ending?

The impact of new money on swimming and English rugby could usher in fundamental change, SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly asks if the golden rule of sport will ultimately tell.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: Does the Fina v ISL battle show the day of the sports body is ending?

Most of us are familiar with the golden rule. Not the one that serves as a foundational principle for most organised religion, the other one: whoever has the gold, makes the rules. 

In professional sport, that maxim probably needs some adaptation, given how much value can be attached to prizes with little inherent monetary worth. Still, athletes have careers, and teams and leagues are typically profit-driven entities with partners to appease. So, sometimes, whoever has the gold and can identify a significant point of leverage can make the rules or at least incorporate a significant portion of his or her agenda. 

Not as snappy, admittedly. 

With a few notable exceptions, like cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) or the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), many of the most lucrative events around today were those most coveted before sport became a commercial powerhouse: the Olympic Games, the Fifa World Cup, Wimbledon. Players still want to win the Super Bowl, or the Open, or the World Series. Money from sponsors and especially broadcasters has come with its own expectations, but the goal has often been to polish historical treasures.

But it doesn’t always work that way, and 2019 could deliver some object lessons in the warping power of external investment. It all starts in the pool, where several of the world’s leading swimmers are in open conflict with the global governing body for aquatic sports, Fina. 

The row arose from the splash made by a good old-fashioned rebel league, which carries a rippling image of the World Hockey Association or Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket. Ukrainian billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin is backing a radical International Swimming League (ISL) concept, which would see the very best compete for city-based teams across Europe and the US in regular meetings from mid-August until the end of the year. A semi-finals and finals event is pencilled in for the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas from 17th to 22nd December. 

In keeping with the traditions of this kind of enterprise, the most striking thing about the ISL is how much money its participants stand to make. Competing swimmers will sign contracts with their franchise teams and with the league, creating two streams of revenue. They will receive salaries and appearance fees, and whatever share of a US$5.3 million prize money pot they can get their hands on. 

In keeping with the traditions of this kind of enterprise, the most striking thing about the ISL is how much money its participants stand to make

In addition, swimmers will receive a 50:50 share of any profits the league makes – which would mean any proceeds left after clearing its US$15 million budget in 2019. 

Fina unveiled its own plans in December for a new invite-only Champions Swim Series with a total purse of just under US$4 million which, like the ISL, would also cover competitors’ travel and accommodation costs. It has also refused to sanction the ISL and threatened any swimmers who take part with bans. 

In response, the ISL has hit Fina with a class action anti-trust lawsuit and stiffened its rhetoric. Where the ISL’s stated aim has been to co-exist with Fina, with the latter continuing to act as a regulatory body, Grigorishin was moved at an ISL Summit convened in London shortly before Christmas to warn that “the day of the sports governing body is coming to an end”.

Even more telling is the action taken by the sport’s best-known stars. Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu, a serial world and Olympic champion with a fair claim to being the leading female draw, has filed her own suit alongside American swimmers Michael Andrew and Tom Shields. Britain’s Adam Peaty – himself an Olympic, world, Commonwealth and European champion – has also been outspoken, insisting that he will happily risk the chance to defend his titles if it means ensuring the financial security of his peers and successors. Speaking to the Times at the ISL Summit, he argued that Fina’s project would still not give swimmers an appropriate cut of its roughly US$100 million annual revenues. 

Hosszu previously led attempts to unionise swimming when she created the Global Association of Professional Swimmers in July 2017, with Peaty one of 30 original signatories. The ISL meeting was a forum for athletes to discuss assembling another, toothier body, the Professional Swimmers Association, which could withdraw members en masse from low-paying competitions. 

The whole episode looks familiar: an outside party, willing to put up some extra cash, exploits an imbalance between a complacent ruling body and an athlete base aware of what is owed. Yet there is a bigger picture emerging this year. With venture capital vehicles looking at sport anew, external investment is making other disruptive waves.

Towards the very end of 2018, former Formula One majority owner CVC Capital Partners completed an unprecedented UK£200 million deal for a minority stake in Premiership Rugby, the top flight of English club rugby union. Early suggestions for how it might make that investment count were leaked to the UK’s Mail on Sunday at the weekend. They included an end to promotion and relegation as well as a more aggressive schedule of overseas games, with a breakaway possible if those moves are thwarted by the Rugby Football Union (RFU). 

Further reporting by the Daily Mail suggests that CVC has a deeper strategy to take over the game at international level. Some context is important here: professional rugby union is less than a quarter of a century old. A wider debate over which competitions and institutions are throttling its growth potential is challenging all manner of amateur-era certainties, and may set the scene for decisive interventions. 

But the possibility of something profoundly different happening, of tournaments and teams being ripped wholesale from the context in which they were created, is alive all over the place. It is present in Uefa’s appeasing efforts to stave off a European Super League in club soccer, the ongoing debate about the plan to expand the Fifa Club World Cup with US$25 billion of Saudi and SoftBank money, every modernising effort by every organisation with a tradition or a power base to protect. 

Whoever has the gold, the rules may be changing fast.