Start your drones: An inside look at the rise of the Drone Racing League

Drone League Racing could be the next alternative sport to become a hit on ESPN's airwaves
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“It has that thrill of a 100-meter dash or horse racing.”

Yes, Nicholas Horbaczewski was referencing drone racing in an article in The New York Times, praising the thrills of a non-traditional sport that has received more public recognition and visibility on television over the last nine months than ever before.

Yet, it wasn’t until last year that Horbaczewski even knew what a drone was. After his first glance of one flying around Long Island, though, the founder and CEO of the Drone Racing League was hooked.

“I just thought it was the one of the coolest things I had ever seen,” Horbaczewski said. “It was so early and so neat. The technology wasn’t really there. It wasn’t quite a sport yet. I was like, ‘This has so much potential. We need to figure out how to make this great.’”

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With an undergraduate degree and MBA from Harvard combined with experiences in film, media and technology, Horbaczewski left his position at Tough Mudder in Jan. 2015.

The need and desire to start another business and embark down his own entrepreneurial path lingered. Following some due diligence, Horbaczewski discovered a potential opportunity with drone racing, where stationary pilots fly quadcoptors around obstacle-filled courses at 80 miles per hour via a cockpit-like camera view. According to Horbaczewski, it was a growing but still untapped niche community that had major potential from both a production and distribution standpoint.

In the past year, drone racing technology and radio communications system has been tested and improved, with all the parts coming together for the Drone Racing League in early 2016 at the Miami Dolphins’ stadium. It was the league’s first foray into large-scale competitive racing, and it was then that Horbaczewski and his team knew drone racing could be orchestrated at a high level.

“At that point, we knew we could do it,” Horbaczewski said. “And then it was like, ‘Should we do it? Will anyone really like this?’ We thought it was cool. We released the Miami episode with YouTube, Twitch and EpicTV in Europe. We got an overwhelming positive response. Can this be done? Should this be done? Now, we’re in the third phase of really growing it out into a property and sport and building the global audience for it.”

Part of that was finding the right television partners, something the league was in search of even prior to the Miami race.

“We wanted someone who believed in drone racing as much as we did and the potential it had,” Horbaczewski said. “Also, recognizing that it was a new sport, and it doesn’t necessarily come with a built-in audience. So you have to have someone who wants to go on that journey with you.”

The Drone Racing League found that partner as it recently announced a multi-year agreement with ESPN to carry a 10-episode package for the 2016 fall season, which will include an in-depth look at 25 pilots away from the competitive field and also races in cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles and Miami. European outlets Sky Sports Mix and 7Sports will have broadcast rights, too.

Horbaczewski said that finding a broadcast partner like ESPN, which has built properties around non-traditional programming such as professional poker, CrossFit, X Games and now e-sports, was integral to growing the league itself but also the sport as a whole.

A turning point in the conversation with the Worldwide Leader, as he described, occurred when network executives realized he and his team were not just pitching the concept of drone racing as others have done—they were pitching the “reality” of what they were already doing. From the state of the technology and the built-from-scratch internal radio system to the various courses the league had planned, ESPN saw an organization with the necessary external and internal pieces to successfully partner with.

“Coverage of DRL lets us merge storytelling, technology and competition into compelling weekly content that we believe will appeal to a growing audience,” Matthew Volk, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions, said in a statement.

It helped that the DRL’s director of operations Ashley Ellefson also came from Tough Mudder, where she already had a heavy dose of experience managing the logistics for hundreds of similar obstacle course-type events. Tony Budding, the league’s director of media, spent nearly a decade at CrossFit selling media, producing events and overseeing content production. 

Horbaczewski’s film background and familiarity with special effects has allowed him to much more easily walk into a warehouse or a professional sports stadium and see what it could eventually become after some slight modifications: a drone race course built for television.

With the league kicking off its remaining nine episodes on ESPN/ESPN2 on Oct. 23, how many viewers will actually tune in for a new spectacle remains to be seen. Still, with different forms of programming now making regular appearances on television, Horbaczewski is fairly optimistic about what the DRL could become.

“E-sports carved a path for the concept of new forms of entertainment,” Horbaczewski said. “It’s made all of the conversations with executives and brands a lot easier.”