“It’s a sport, a form of recreation, but it has implications in other sectors we have been following, like streaming and virtual reality…No other sport comes closer to capitalizing on them.”
Last weekend, 100 pilots gathered to race in front of the Manhattan skyline at speeds of more than 60 miles an hour in the 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships. The winner was one Zachry Thayer, who races under the name “A_Nub.”
And for the first time ever, they’ll race live on a national broadcast: ESPN3 will air the race on Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. Eastern time—the first time America’s largest sports network will cover the sport. For drone racers, organizers and enthusiasts, ESPN’s streaming broadcast is a breakthrough moment.
“ESPN legitimizes drone racing from a hobby level to a sport level,” said Sahand Barati, chief executive of Drone Sports Association, the racing league that is putting on the New York race this weekend. “ESPN airing it is proof [that drone racing] is going to be a real thing versus just a fad.”
Barati says sponsors have piled into the event, and that drone racing is now on companies’ radar as the newest way to tap into the emerging crossover between sports and technology—and target a generation of young viewers more interested in YouTube and Pokémon Go than Monday Night Football.
Among these bigger players, no one league has yet to emerge as the heavyweight: some leagues have secured significant investment, while others are taking the lead in major sponsorship deals or broadcast contracts. The Drone Racing League in January said it secured more than $8 million in funding, including investment from RSE Ventures, the venture-capital firm run by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.
“It’s a sport, a form of recreation, but it has implications in other sectors we have been following, like streaming and virtual reality,” said Keith Strier, who coleads innovation and digital enterprise strategy for sponsor Ernst & Young. “Take all these different topics and put them into one nice little package. No other sport comes closer to capitalizing on them. “
For now Strier says having multiple leagues is spurring innovation and growth in the industry. “They all have slightly different approaches. Some approach with produced racing experiences, others focus on live, organic sports.”
An extensive report by the drone girl, Sally French that digs into a number of different aspects of the emerging sport. The event was widely covered by the big business books because ESPN3 live-streamed the event – this was not an ESPN television broadcast.
We discussed ESPN’s strategy in detail here when the event was first announced in April. Unfortunately, you cannot log in to watch without having a subscription to a cable or satellite provider. Which kind of defeats the goal of reaching the “cable-cutters.” That probably explains why there is nothing on YouTube – so much for going viral.
The promoters accomplished their stated goal of attracting some top drawer sponsors including GoPro, Ernst & Young, AIG, and EMC. Not your usual suspects. Given that they were programming against the Olympics you can imagine this was mostly for bragging rights. And given that these companies don’t sell much to the Millennial target audience you can wonder if this was mostly for bragging rights. Oh and recruiting said Millennials?
A Mountain Dew event the “DR1 Invitational,” which is a one-hour drone-racing special slated to air on both Discovery Channel and Science Channel is coming up next in Los Angeles. Turns out that “A_Nub” will be competing.