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Swimming the latest sport to throw a small but tasty morsel to the masses

by ZwemZa on December 2nd, 2019

Cate Campbell (left) and Emma McKeon formed part of the London Roar squad in the International Swimming League. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

In the thoroughly bingeable Succession there is a memorable moment when Roman Roy – lazy scion of a Murdoch-esque family empire – tries to win over the chief executive of a new media company. The CEO asks him what his vision for the future of the industry is. “It’s all about the morsels, man,” says Roman, possibly the show’s ultimate bullshit artist. “That’s where we’re headed. Tasty morsels from groovy hubs …”

It was a phrase that came back to me last week as the UK welcomed the International Swimming League, the latest sporting grab for the shrinking attention of Generation Z. It has been dubbed, naturally, the T20 of swimming, because for all we like to talk cricket down, it is still the current holder of the title for Most Surprisingly Successful Reimagining of a Thought-to-be Moribund Product. The ISL’s pre-game hype promised that it would “change the world of swimming” and it has already found an enthusiastic audience, playing to full houses over two days at the London Aquatics Centre.

Swimming is one of the most closely followed events at the Olympics and it is to no one’s shame but mine that I have struggled with it as a spectator sport. That all you can see of the competitors in action is a trail of surf – and often you can’t tell who’s won until their name flashes up on the board – makes it difficult for this would-be couch expert to get involved.

So the prospect of swimming receiving the T20 treatment intrigued me. How do you make the sport sexier, snappier, more accessible? Would the athletes do widths instead of lengths? Perhaps they would be forced to share lanes, requiring the kind of daring overtaking witnessed in the absurdly narrow fast lanes at my local pool on Saturday mornings. My most vivid hope was a powerplay a third of the way through each race introducing sudden hazards – kids messing about with noodles, teenagers dive-bombing at the deep end – and extra points for avoiding them.

The ISL chose a more well-worn route. As RugbyX, GolfSixes, Fast5 Netball and even lawn bowls’s brand-new Ultimate Bowls Championship have demonstrated in the past few years, there are certain rules to T20-fiying your sport. Those begin with the invention of team franchises whose wordjumble names were redolent of rejected Gladiators contestants. In this case we had Iron, Aqua Centurions, London Roar, Energy Standard; if the latter sounds like a utility company, that’s because it is, one that made billions for the ISL’s Ukrainian founder, Konstantin Grigorishin.

Another axiom of T20-fication is that any intended simplification of the sport, in a bid to engage new audiences, will turn out to be curiously complicated. This is why the Hundred retains all the most incomprehensible elements of cricket – such as the lbw law – and adds a bunch more, including five-ball overs and bowling from the same end.

In the ISL’s case the confusion came in the guise of its notional Europe v USA structure – despite its eventual MVP being a South African, Chad le Clos – as well as the fact that its geographically vague entities were competing in what the American commentator termed a derby (or rather, durrby) match. Istanbul, Energy Standard’s home base, is apparently a lot closer to Stratford than you previously imagined.

Only fools attempt to reinvent their sport for millennials without wedding it to sick beats, so naturally there was a poolside DJ, not to mention the promise of a winner-takes-all showdown in Las Vegas (because, y’know, sexy). Team placings were decided by an F1-style points system for each race and I was right about the width thing.

The central tenet of T20-fication is to make your sport shorter and in the ISL’s case it has taken this with pure literality. Instead of a standard Olympic-size pool, races took place over a half-length 25m course. Is it too soon to raise concerns over the future creation of short-form specialists? Adam Peaty might want to watch the travails of Joe Root’s team in the current New Zealand Test series before he jeopardises the technique that has won him so many gold medals. And yet – it’s hard to dislike the ISL. The unremitting action – there are no heats to slow things down – made for a compelling poolside atmosphere. With its alluring alternative format – there is genuine fascination in the strategy of squad swimming – Grigorishin’s creation has filled in the lulls between the sport’s traditional peaks. It cannot help but raise the profile of its stars and provide them with another source of income, too: not so much a T20 revolution, perhaps, as a Kerry Packer one.

It is natural, then, that swimmers have embraced ISL from the outset – unlike some players at October’s RugbyX tournament. Several admitted they had been suspicious of the format before the games and, while they were all converts by the time they were interviewed pitchside, you could understand their reservations. The five-a-side, 10-minute games, on pitches without posts, were largely meaningless try‑fests, a sugary hit of sprints and tackles that seemed to lack the gristle and fibre of the sport’s pre-existing forms. Rugby union already has a short, sexy format in sevens; RugbyX felt like reductio ad absurdum.

Whether you are taking part or watching, sport is ultimately entertainment; it has to follow its audience. Not all of these bitesize varieties will succeed – spare a thought for tennis, which has tried Fast4 Tennis, Tie Break Tens and Thirty30 in the past few years – but some will succeed and more power to them.

For now at least, that’s where we’re headed. Tasty morsels from groovy hubs.

Emma John | The Guardian

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