If you doubted that drone racing was a real sport—that robots flying through garish neon gates belong in the same league as muscled athletes who actually sweat—consider that this week, the International Drone Racing Association and ESPN announced a multi-year distribution deal.
The collaboration’s first event, the US National Drone Racing Championships, will be broadcast live on ESPN3, an online channel, in August, and then repackaged as a one-hour special to be aired elsewhere on the network.
The upside for the International Drone Racing Association, and drone racing in general, is easy to see. A deal with ESPN is a marker of legitimacy, the kind that’s already boosted peripheral athletic pursuits like MMA.
For ESPN, though, it’s a different kind of bet—one aimed at the digital generation. The network has struggled to keep up its subscription numbers as more and more Americans drop cable. To compensate, ESPN might go full internet and offer subscribers a standalone subscription service like HBO Now (or maybe not). Either way, getting into drone racing looks like bait for the young cohort that particularly enjoys its content in a digital form.
Still, the network isn’t trying to actually induce more drone race-loving dudes to buy an ESPN subscription, Leichtman says. Rather, it’s hoping to add value to the overall package. Cumulatively, the network anticipates, its efforts will induce dudes to pick up the remote once again. “Drone racing is an opportunity to reach and connect with a growing and passionate audience,” Matthew Volk, ESPN’s head of programming and acquisitions said in a press release.
This adds a lot of context to the IDRA version of the story. The entire broadcast industry has been reeling as Millennials eschew big cable packages for what is called “over the top” programming like Netflix, Hulu etc. which stream over the Internet. ESPN which is expensive, has been among the harder hit in negotiations with DISH, DirecTV and Comcast.
From a production perspective, this could be produced as a multi-camera extravaganza. But that would be self-defeating. My bet is that most of the coverage will be the FPV feed with an expert commentator. That would do a lot to keep costs down. If the sport and the league flies, well then bring it on up the food chain.