New league chief tells FINA: Work with us; we're no rogue breakaway
By Jonathan Rest
The driving force behind a new club-based international swimming league has said he is working to get the full buy-in of FINA, despite opposition from the sport’s governing body, and insisted he has no interest in establishing a Kerry Packer-style breakaway league.
Investment banker Ali Khan (pictured) is chief executive of the Switzerland-headquartered International Swimming League, which is planning to hold its inaugural event in December, ahead of a full season of up to eight events in cities worldwide from 2019.
Through private investment, the ISL is armed with $2 million in prize money and for swimmer contracts, and already has strong commercial partnerships in place with Wasserman, the USA-based sports marketing and talent management agency, which is acting as global adviser, and Sportcel, the London-based sports sponsorship and events agency that is working on the details of the 2018 launch event.
While Khan claims to have the backing of LEN, the European swimming confederation, and several national swimming associations for the ISL, it has not been sanctioned by FINA.
Indeed, FINA sent an open letter to all 209 member countries on 5 June warning them against cooperating with the "so-called" international competition, which it "does not recognise." The federation warned that the event is not part of the international calendar and that results and records achieved there "are not and will not be recognised."
Khan, whose 20-year career in investment banking took him to Geneva, Dubai, Singapore and London, said he is “surprised” by FINA’s actions.
In an interview with Sportcal today, Khan, who lives in London, said: “With FINA the door remains open. I’m surprised with some of the responses from FINA, saying they do not know us. I personally have been in the meetings with FINA, with Cornel [Marculescu, executive director of FINA]. None of that is made up. There have been some actions taking by FINA, but we are trying to keep things amicable. I’ve had a number of meetings with them and I’m looking to speak with them very soon once we make some announcements as to what we are looking to do.”
Khan said no official documentation from FINA has been sent to ISL.
For the inaugural event from 19 to 22 December, the ISL intends to have eight clubs competing, each with a squad of 28 (14 men, 14 women). At present, there is interest from more than eight clubs in USA, Brazil, France, Russia, Australia, Italy and the UK.
Each selected club will receive $154,000 to compete in December’s event, which will enable them to strengthen their squads, and ideally contract internationally-renowned swimmers. The ISL will additionally fork out for the travel and accommodation expenses of each team, and there will be a prize pot of $800,000.
All of those respective national swimming federations attended a recent ISL roundtable in Antalya, Turkey to learn more about the project.
Khan said: “We feel we are coming up with a scenario that doesn’t violate FINA rules and regulations. We have not only tried to liaise with FINA, we have been liaising with federations in the respective countries where the clubs are. We have not ignored them.
“We are not interested in creating some sort of rogue league. This is not a Kerry Packer breakaway [a reference to Australian media magnate Kerry Packer, who launched his World Series of Cricket in the 1970s]. We are looking to keep everyone onside and do something here that moves the needle in the world of professional swimming.”
He added that the ISL has studied the FINA calendar closely to ensure there is no clash of events - the FINA World Championships (25m) are slated for 11 to 16 December - and that all ISL events will be run in strict compliance with FINA doping control rules.
The idea of the ISL was spawned from a conversation Khan had with his business partner, the Ukrainian oligarch and swimming enthusiast, Konstantin Grigorishin, a few years ago over a “dislocation” between swimming and other top sports.
Khan explained: “I couldn’t understand why you get this peak interest during the Olympics, where athletics and swimming are the two most watched disciplines and then it kind of disappears for swimming. In athletics you still have the Diamond League, but swimming just disappears, really, for four years and then when I attended various [swimming] events I also realised you just don’t have the spectator interest either.
“There is this unjustified feast and famine in swimming which impacts a swimmer’s ability to earn a decent living.”
The ISL has brought on board Andrea Di Nino as managing director. Di Nino is a coach to several world and Olympic champions, including South African star Chad Le Clos, and through his contacts has generated strong swimmer interest in the concept of a club-based, multi-national league.
The plan for 2019 onwards is to have an event hosted by each of the competing clubs between August and December.
Khan said: “That is where Wasserman will really come in. They’re advising us from a global 2019 perspective on how best to position our event as we go multi-city, multi-country.”
As for the inaugural event, a host city is expected to be revealed in the next few weeks, with USA or the UK appearing to be the most likely location at this stage.
Khan continued: “Once the host city is announced some time soon, then very quickly we can announce the broadcasting strategy, and then that empowers us to have the formal discussions with sponsors.
“The feedback from broadcasters, both the traditional networks and the new digital entrants, has been great.”
On sponsors, Khan said plans are in place for a tiered strategy, with a select number of global sponsors, underpinned by local partners and technical suppliers.
He added: “We are looking at a commercial model where this becomes a self-sustaining exercise.”
Over the next few months, Khan said he will continue to engage with FINA officials in the hope of agreeing a partnership on the future direction of ISL, but failure to get that agreement will not stymie preparations.
He said: “We are pushing ahead with this. We have continued to develop our conversations with clubs and athletes, we have indicative rosters in place and we are having real conversations with broadcasters and sponsors. Our advisers, Wasserman and Sportcel, are formal relationships, which means we are spending time and money pursuing this.”