Drone Racing League: An Emerging Technology-Based Sport
By Samson Wolpov
A piece of technology once strictly used for capturing footage is now the catalyst for a new professional sports league. The Drone Racing League (DRL), founded in 2015, is a professional league in which professional operators race drones around stadiums throughout the world. These drones have the ability to reach up to speeds of 120 MPH and flyers are forced to maneuver through obstacles and checkpoints throughout the stadiums while collecting points. While the league was founded in 2015, the inaugural season did not kick off until 2016 as the league was still figuring out all the behind-the-scenes logistics and strategies. Its hope is to become the Formula 1 and NASCAR for drone racing. With a tall hill to climb, the league is looking to take the world by storm.
Before launching publicly in 2016, the DRL was forced to find a company or organization that would be willing to broadcast its events on a national level. In order to get the proper recognition and respect to even be aired on national TV, the DRL had to find investors who were willing to shell out large sums of money to run this league. Fortunately, they were able to receive investments from the likes of RSE Ventures, backed by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, and Courtside Ventures, backed by Cleveland Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert. After doing so, the DRL was now able to go out and find a media outlet that was willing to broadcast its events. Eventually, they reached an agreement with sports media conglomerate ESPN to broadcast its first official season. ESPN’s director of programming and acquisition had this to say about the deal back in 2016, “Coverage of DRL lets us merge storytelling, technology, and competition into compelling weekly content that we believe will appeal to a growing audience.” During this first season, ESPN aired ten one-hour episodes which began with a viewer's guide to drone racing and concluded with the DRL Championship in November. Fast forward to 2019, the DRL had three successful seasons and ultimately decided to hit the market again and find a new broadcaster for their events.
In order to launch the “next phase of evolution” in its media distribution strategy, DRL signed a deal with Twitter and NBC to continue the league's direction toward digital platforms. The CEO and founder, Nicholas Horbaczewski, said that the league was intrigued by striking a deal with NBC due to their “incredible heritage in racing.” The new deal is in line with DRL’s shift from linear TV coverage to digital platforms. According to official figures provided by the DRL, more than 57 million viewers tuned in during the league's first three seasons, which were exclusively streamed on linear TV channels. Not only will the partnership with NBC help this next phase, but also their new deal with Twitter. The league is already seeing massive engagement on its account as back in 2019, it amassed 34,000 followers, but now in 2022, they have 80K followers, a 135% increase. Horbaczewski had this to say about their partnership with the social media platform, “Twitter has built a very unique and effective platform for bringing sports content to fans as they’re watching. They manage to be both the conversation and a compelling form of digital distribution at the same time.” With the TV deal and broadcast rights deals being settled, the DRL needed to find companies that had similar values and can be seen as an official sponsor/partner of the league.
A revolutionary sport has partnered with a revolutionary service as the DRL has partnered with the Cryptocurrency platform Algorand. This sort of move sheds light on both the technological-based sports league and the crypto industries growing role within sports around the world. The deal, announced back in 2021, is reportedly worth north of $100 million over the next five years. Within this deal, the DRL is releasing digital tickets for racing events called Non-Fungible-Tokens, better known as NFTs. Also, Algorand was granted the naming rights to the racing league championship series. Algorand’s CEO had this to say about the deal, “The deal will introduce millions of technology enthusiasts to the possibilities that blockchain can bring to racing and sports as we know them today.”
To continue down the technological advancement path, the DRL has formed a partnership with 5G wireless provider, T-Mobile. This partnership was formed in 2020 but we did not see the software in action until the 2021 DRL Allianz Championship Series in which the drones were developed using T-Mobile’s 5G network. Not only will the 5G network help the drones fly faster and more efficiently, but will also help the DRL get content out to fans and consumers in real time. Additionally, the 5G racing drones will enable companies to deliver unique and immersive experiences for fans and millions of T-Mobile customers, while also opening up new opportunities across different industries. Not only does the DRL have partnerships with Algorand and T-Mobile, but also with Google Cloud, Allianz, U.S. Air Force, Points Kash, Draganfly, Genius Sports, Champion, Sky Sports, StarTimes, and more.
The formation of the partnerships is not the only reason for the growth of the league as the broadcasting deals have already paid serious dividends as well. The DRL has more than doubled its broadcast reach from the previous season. Throughout the 2021 season, it offered drone racing to six continents with 13 different sports networks broadcasting it to more than 320 million household viewers in over 140 different markets. To meet the needs of consumers around the world, the DRL worked with global media rights consulting company Octagon to not only renew previous partnerships with broadcasters throughout Australia, Brazil, and United Kingdom, but also signed an exclusive agreement with StarTimes in Africa, Sony TV in Asia and the Middle East, and beIN Sports, Eleven Sports, and TrueVisions in Asia as well. In China, viewership tripled as a result of these partnerships and the DRL is the most followed drone brand on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform. As a result of all these broadcast deals, this upcoming season will represent DRL’s broadest global reach as household viewership is up 30% from last season. The league formed partnerships with 20 different international networks and is planning for the 2022-2023 season to be its biggest yet.
With the 2022-2023 season underway, the DRL is looking to capitalize on the growing interest in technology-based sports. Its first race, held in San Jose, California, was presented by Google Cloud, a new sponsor for the 2023 season. With the formation of all these new partners, the league is expected to reach new heights and break the barriers and become a mainstream sport. With documented growth year after year, it is always interesting to see how executives and partners will continue to innovate and think of new ways to grow this emerging property.