Last spring Nick Horbaczewski didn't have a clue what drone racing was. Now he's the CEO and founder of the Drone Racing League (DRL), with investors that include Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Since officially launching in January, DRL has made it clear that it's vying to be the Nascar of drones, offering marketers and media partners a professional alternative to the burgeoning amateur sport. "People see the potential of this as a sport that can excite and engage a millennial audience," said Horbaczewski. "It's not only its technology roots and its comparability to esports, it's also the format of the race."
For the uninitiated, here's how drone racing works: Pilots navigate their aircraft around complex 3-D courses at speeds of up to 80 mph; cameras are attached to the drones, beaming video that gives pilots (and fans) a view from the cockpit as they zip around. "Each event is made up of many individual races that are two to three minutes long so you can watch races as short as 90 seconds or as long as two hours, and constantly be getting that satisfaction of exciting sporting action versus almost every other form of racing," said Horbaczewski.
DRL's first event, Level 1: Miami Lights, took place in December at Miami Dolphins' Sun Life Stadium. It attracted 40 million viewers when the race began streaming in late February as a three-part series across YouTube, Twitch and Epic TV—without any promotional support behind it.
While DRL has yet to disclose any brand or media partnerships, a spokesman said the league is in talks with over 50 major marketers—from beverage giants to automotive and insurance brands. Earlier this year, DRL was the only outside company invited to Anheuser-Busch InBev's annual brand leader summit; DRL also has presented to agencies like Starcom and OMD.
"For advertisers, this could be a chance to avoid another case of 'Nascar blindness' or 'esports ignorance' and get involved with an exciting new sport that is capturing the consumers' attention," said Tom Kelshaw, director of creative technology at Maxus. "Drones combine the speed, exhilaration and approachability of motor sports with the technology of esports and consumer gadgets."
DRL is just the latest entry into the sport, with other more established companies having scored major TV and marketing partnerships. In April, ESPN announced it had entered into a multiyear deal with the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA) to broadcast its races, beginning with its 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, which will take place in New York on Aug. 5-7. "Drone racing is an opportunity to reach and connect with a growing and passionate audience," noted Matthew Volk, ESPN director of programming and acquisitions.
In May, Mountain Dew announced it would be the title sponsor of the two-day DR1 Invitational, which was livestreamed on Twitch this past weekend (June 25-26) from Los Angeles and will run as a one-hour special on the Discovery and Science networks Aug. 6.
"Mountain Dew is most comfortable when we are pushing the boundaries of what's possible, whether it be technology, style or just having a damn good time," said Michael Craig, senior marketing manager, Mountain Dew. "With drone racing emerging onto the scene, we saw an opportunity to make an impact on the sport by becoming the first brand to sign a drone racing pilot [Tommy "UmmaGawd" Tibajia], and teaming up with DR1 Racing on a global partnership for the … DR1 Invitational and DR1 Drone Racing Series."
Regardless of the league, the fact is drone racing is catching up to esports—and consumers are buying in. NPD Group sales data backs that up, with retail sales of drones up 224 percent to $200 million at the end of April over the prior year. "It's such a classic millennial thing. A new device comes along and then all of a sudden they figure out how to make a sport out of it," said Matt Powell, global sports industry analyst for NPD Group. "But they're going to have to make [drones] bigger if they're going to become Nascar, though—otherwise, those logos are going to be pretty tiny."
This story first appeared in the June 27, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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