Drone Racing League CEO on creating a sport millennials will watch Share PDF Print E-mail
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New sports don't come up often, and when they do they can take years to reach TV screens. Which makes the rise of the Drone Racing League, who have just signed TV deals with Sky, ESPN and 7Sports, even more remarkable. The movement only started in 2012, just four years later a pro league with a substantial TV deal is in place.

Arguably it's the first new sport to arise off the back of a new technology, only Formula-e could claim to come close.

CEO and founder of the Drone Racing League (DRL) Nicholas Horbaczewski thinks that drone racing is the first of many to come.

"We think there's a whole new robotic sports revolution coming and that technology-enabled sports will become increasingly common." said Horbaczewski. "E-Sports has done a good job in changing public perception of what a technology-enabled sport means and what it can look like. People said it couldn't work 5-6 years ago, and now we see e-sports as a major business - it's a huge sport with tens of millions of fans around the world. Part of the rise in drone racing is that technology crosses language and culture barriers very easily, so you could instantly have a global sport that has people of both genders and all ethnic backgrounds and all nationalities participating in it. I think it opens up the possibility for a sport that can be more global as opposed to regional."

eSports has been key to drone racing. DRL's mantra is that it is 'a real life video game', but crucially it takes place away from screens. For Horbaczewski, that's key.

"There's definitely a difference in how people feel about eSports and how people perceive it. We get senior people at major e-sports companies telling us 'you guys have something we want' -- whereas the highest form and lowest form of eSports competition look identical -- really the only difference is how big the screen is that you're playing on -- the highest form of our competition is obviously real life. That changes how people feel about the experience."


This is a sport created by, and marketed for, millennials. Starting a sport from scratch may have its challenges, but it does mean that it can be designed for a digital audience, something more traditional racing has struggled with. Horbaczewski professed his love of the traditional racing series, but feels his sport has an advantage in the hard to reach millennial audience.

"The traditional sports world, especially racing sports, and MotoGP, F1 and NASCAR, who have all probably spoken about this, is really seeing a big decline in younger viewers - they're just not picking up younger viewers. As viewers get older, there's just fewer and fewer of them. One of the great things about drone racing is that we know from our demographic data that those young people are watching. A huge chunk of our viewers see it as a cool new technology-enabled sport. Another big chunk just think of it as a traditional racing sport - but our viewers are much younger. Our viewers are 18-35 and this is a racing sport for that generation. I think it'll be interesting to see how this plays out because I think traditional racing has been particularly hit hard by not being able to find a younger viewership."

"Drone racing is a sport that shares a lot of dynamics with eSports and video games. That's something that we know that 18-35 year olds really enjoy. The other thing about our sport, specifically DRL, is because we have a particular form of drone racing, I can sit down and show you a 60-second video on your phone which is a complete race with drama and passion. It has a winner and a loser. Or, you can sit down and watch two hours of content that weaves together all those races and background on the pilot, and technology overview - you can choose whether you watch as little as a minute or as much as two hours. In traditional racing you have to be glued to the screen. I love F1 but you watch two hours and it's one pit-stop and one pass that mattered - I was getting a beer when those things happened and I missed all the action. I just don't think that type of content suits a millennial audience terribly well."

Drone racing is already starting to resonate on social media. The nature of the races means they are easily consumable online. A race from Miami was given to the publisher Quartz, who put it on their Facebook page. A few weeks later it had amassed over 24 million views. Numbers Formula-e would kill for.

But drone racing isn't just showing off new tech, it's at the forefront of creating it itself. Horbaczewski explained that a lot of IP is tied up in the series:

"Our challenge is intense. One of the bars of doing drone racing is having the right technology -- which we develop in-house -- and being able to film it. You're talking about drones the size of a dinner plate going at 80 mph through close, indoor spaces. We had to go back to the drawing board on how these were filmed. We couldn't have outsourced that part of the business, so we have had to develop deep, in-house expertise in terms of techniques of filming as well as some pieces of technology that allow us to film the drones, and when you see our content you see these really fast drones, in focus, large in frame and you know exactly what's going on.

That's not a coincidence; that's a year of investing and sweat put into making that happen."

"We have designed our own radio system which is why you see us having large races that weave through different parts of a building in a way that drones haven't been able to fly before. Then on the media side as well, each one of those definitely has real world applications. As the company gets bigger, we’ll have a little more bandwidth to focus on things outside of our core mission. I think we'll start following up with some of the inquiries we've had about licensing our technologies."


Drone racing certainly has the industry's attention. Backed by Sky, ESPN, VCs and now Eurosport, the market will wait to see how the first video game inspired sport performs. Many will look to follow in the DRL's wake, starting their own sports. What advice would Horbaczewski have for those looking to follow his, and DRL's, lead?

'I think you have to create something that is going to capture people's attention and imagination. I meet a lot of people who are interested in creating a new sport, and that ranges everything from robot boxing to a new one-on-one basketball league. Part of the question is, is there an opportunity in the market for this? Is there a void where fans will do this?"

Another thing I hear people talking about a lot is, to create sports or recreate sports where you get to start fresh and say this is for a digital/millennial audience and is going to be media first - what would you do with that if that was the case? What would basketball, or soccer, or football look like if they had been created today? I think there's an opportunity to do that, and I think that the big sports companies are reinventing themselves and young entrepreneurs with a sports base can create things that will really capture people's attention."

Sports franchises of all shapes and sizes would do well to think on Horbaczewski's parting thought - if your sport was created today, what would you do different? Those that don't may well see drone racing marching into their fanbase.

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