Drone racing league CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski: 'We’re a technology company'

Wednesday January 25th, 2017

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NEW YORK – At its core, the Drone Racing League is a technology company, commented Nicholas Horbaczewski about the 18-month-old sports property.

The Founder and Chief Executive Officer described that when his now 19-member staff—10 of which are full-time drone engineers and technologists who maintain the league’s 350-drone fleet—began the DRL journey, technology didn’t exist for anything.

From the drones’ carbon fiber frames to the circuit boards inside of them to the radio communications system and the courses themselves, Horbaczewski and his team had to design the infrastructure and even the drones from scratch. He equated a hand-built drone to a Formula E car, one that you also wouldn’t just drive around aimlessly.

“The drones have a single purpose. How do you build a drone that will be the drone featured in a spectator version of this?” asked Horbaczewski as he stood outside Webster Hall in Manhattan during the Bud Light 2017 DRL Tryouts, a video-based tryout for one of 24 participants to become the Bud Light pilot for Season 2 this summer.

“(Ryan Gury) is going to be remembered as the Leonardo da Vinci of drone racing,” Horbaczewski said in reference to the Director of Product, employee No. 1 at the DRL. “It’s unbelievable what he’s contributed to the sport.”

After six months of developing technologies, filing patents and working with lawyers, the DRL was coming together. It wasn’t until about a year ago when the league formally launched, with the transition of then having to wrap the technology company around media as well. Horbaczewski explained how friend, mentor and investor in DRL, Strauss Zelnick—now the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc.—helped frame Horbaczewski’s thinking for continuing to create a concept sport and league without a blueprint. 

“He told me, ‘Sports leagues are not companies. They’re ecosystems. In the center of it is this thing called your league. That’s really just the gravitational center, and you need to get an orbit around you, all of these other people. You somehow need to make it all happen at once. You need broadcasters, you need fans, you need athletes, you need sponsors, you need venues. You need to get everyone aligned and rotating around this idea every step of the way.’

“He said that to me, and I was like, ‘Wow, you’re totally right.’ Does it help us with future people to say Bud Light was involved? Absolutely. Did it help when we said ESPN is involved? Absolutely. When we brought on other partners or when we start to show really great ratings, every one of those things you put in orbit builds your ecosystem and the solar system of your sport. No one of them is enough but all of them together in alignment creates a sport.”

The DRL is ESPN’s next big television bet as the Worldwide Leader, and the league recently finished a 10-episode Season 1 last Fall. Season 2 will kick off sometime in early June, which will include the first professional drone races in Europe as DRL makes stops in Germany and London.

With with one full broadcast season under its belt, the DRL conversation has slightly shifted for the league and Horbaczewski.

“Now we’re in the, ‘How we do continue to build a sustainable sports league?’ Are we going to get brand name sponsors? Are people going to be willing to take the risk in the sport?’”

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Below are some more key soundbites from Horbaczewski as we discussed the Bud Light deal with the DRL, relationship with investors and the potential for live streaming online.

On DRL Season 1 learnings…When you partner with companies like ESPN and Sky Sports, they have very, very high standards. It immediately takes you from, ‘Hey, we’re a bunch of people with the dream of building a pro sports league,’ to ‘We need to deliver world-class sporting content, and we need to deliver it right away’. It really tested us as an organization and really tested the sport. We’re glad we came through it and showed we could live up to those expectations.

On the potential for live streaming deals on Twitch, Facebook Live, Twitter or any platforms, similar to what has happened with the NFL, the Atlantic 10 Conference, PGA TOUR and other sports … This is honestly not very unique to DRL. There’s a tectonic shift with the way audiences are consuming content. I think it hit entertainment properties first; it’s starting to hit sports networks now. You’re starting to see some changes. … One of the best things about being a brand new sport is when you come onto the scene when other changes are going on, you can sort of ride the front of that wave.

On the Bud Light partnership, what does it to mean to the organization and drone racing as a sport … It has a lot of meaning on many levels. One, is there a beer in the world that is more associated with sports than Bud Light? They are the authentic beer of sports, so for them to become a partner of the Drone Racing League really validates a lot of what we have been doing. It allows us to look at the world and say, ‘We’re working with Bud Light, who also works with a lot of major leagues.’ This is becoming a major thing. A huge brand looked across the landscape and said, ‘Hey, we want to be in drone racing, and we want to partner with DRL specifically.’ It’s huge. It’s a validation of DRL, it’s a validation of the sport. The other thing is Bud Light is very powerful brand. An event like today, we couldn’t do without the support of Bud Light. It gives us a platform to go even bigger on what we’re doing.

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On educating partners on what drone racing is, the Drone Racing League and where brands could fit in … There’s always going to be an education with something new. They want to see the races, they want to see the content on TV. With being on ESPN, it educates people in some way. When we come together with Bud Light, it’s about finding both of each other’s goals and how we can help each other achieve them. Today, they’re sponsoring the 2017 tryout. The winner of this eSports tournament will have a spot in the league. Bud Light was really excited about some elements of that. One, it’s eSports becomes real sports. It’s player becomes become pro athlete. It’s elevating someone from being a face out in the crowd and putting hours into becoming a pro to becoming famous. … Once they get why drone racing, once they get why DRL, then it’s like, ‘How are we going to work together?’

On the relationship with investors, which includes RSE Ventures, MGM, Courtside Ventures, CAA Ventures and others … You better have people who believe in what you’re doing, have a vision and understand what it takes to build a new sport. We’re incredibly fortunate to have unbelievable investors — RSE Ventures, Stephen Ross, CAA, MGM, Courtside Ventures … Our investor list is incredible. I talk to all of our investors at least once a week.  When people ask, how did you do all of this in 18 months? Really 12 months since we publicly launched. It’s the old adage, ‘It takes a village.’ They’re our village.

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