A niche hobby that will never derive media rights fees worth
talking about, sceptics will say, while others coo at the huge potential of its
millennial audience.

Drone racing enthusiasts descended on Alexandra Palace in North London one evening in mid June as the DRL season drew to a close. As an audience of several hundred watched drones screeching around a venue more associated with darts, it was hard to fathom that industry heavyweights Sky and Liberty Media led a new $20-million funding round in the series.

But it is the ‘off-site’ numbers that have convinced the duo (and others) to part with their cash, be it the 33 million television ‘viewers’ of DRL’s 2016 debut season or the 43 million online content views. These are figures that tempted Allianz, the insurance powerhouse, to spend a reported $10 million to become the DRL’s title sponsor.

Conversely, Formula 1’s Murray Barnett, previously an experienced buyer and seller of media rights at ESPN and World Rugby, respectively, tweeted at the start of the year: “I have seen the future and I know it’s not drone racing.”

This is an opinion that is not unique in the industry. While
the mere mention of drone racing will, like eSports, lead to talk among some of
the huge potential of its millennial audience, others will scoff at the notion
of it ever taking its place commercially alongside more traditional sports.

London’s Alexandra Palace staged the Drone Racing League finale

Speaking as a drone racing novice, the action itself and the DRL technology seemed slick and impressive. Multi-coloured drones hurtled around tight corners and through gated obstacles at over 70mph, while sending back live feeds to pilots and spectators through first-person view video goggles. Wire cams, on-site commentators and a merchandising stand gave the event the look and feel of an established sports event. A tie-up with Betfair even allowed punters to wage money on the outcome.

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But does the commercial model lend weight to the potential of a sector that boasts three rival series in the DRL, Drone Champions League and DR1 Racing? 

Sponsorship, media rights and product licensing are the DRL’s chief revenue sources, and the series has replicated the more successful eSports promoters and teams by signing up sponsorship brands on the back of its valuable audience demographic.

Nick Horbaczewski, DRL’s youthful founder and chief executive, tells Sportcal Insight: “People look at eSports and try to say it’s a little different, but we’re all fundamentally doing the same thing. What makes DRL unique from a sponsorship standpoint is that our sport is a real-life video game. We can integrate sponsors into the racing and the course, which is harder for traditional sports.”

While refusing to be drawn on whether Allianz is investing an eight-figure sum on a multi-year title sponsorship, he argues that bringing the company on board was a “huge statement.”

Brands including the likes of Swatch, Bud Light and Amazon Prime
have all been swayed by the DRL.

“Brands are figuring this out,” according to Horbaczewski, “and it’s a compliment to the professionalism that DRL has brought to this space.”

“Our sport is a real-life video game. We can integrate sponsors into the racing and the course, which is harder for traditional sports”

Nick Horbaczewski, DRL’s founder and chief executive  

DRL lays claim to being aired in over 75 countries, with broadcasters
including Sky in the UK, ESPN in USA and ProSieben Maxx in Germany, albeit not
live, given the challenges around production. Sky first invested $1 million in
the DRL in September 2016, and agreed a broadcast deal at the same time.

Horbaczewski insists that broadcasters are paying media rights fees to carry its 10 one-hour episodes and that the DRL’s 33-million viewership figure is proof of a “viable media rights business.” But, given the audience levels involved, it’s hard to imagine even live rights to drone racing fetching fees anywhere near those commanded by sport’s heavyweight disciplines. 

A deal with ProSiebenMaxx in one of Europe’s major markets was feted by DRL, but some of its audiences for last year’s programming fell as low as 40,000 viewers. DR1 Racing announced a pan-European deal with Eurosport eight months ago but most of the programming didn’t make the airwaves.

So how does Horbaczewski react to the sceptical view that
drone racing is not the future?

“I’ve met so many people that five years ago said that eSports will never be on television. Now you have a nine-figure TV deal in eSports [BAMTech’s streaming deal with Riot Games]. Some people have a very traditional mindset about what belongs on TV.

“I would argue that Sky Sports knows more about what belongs on TV than pundits out there trying to make statements about it.

“But we’re a young league and we don’t need to worry about that. As we mature, who knows what’s going to happen as television as a whole, and independent of us. There’s a cataclysmic shift in the broadcast landscape and one of the great things about our content is that it works well online and on TV.”

Drone Champions League is one of DRL’s rivals

The rival Drone Champions League, a series that recently attracted the investment of media rights executive Sascha Kojic, has plans for live TV and streaming coverage of its Great Wall of China and Berlin races later in the year, and live production is one obstacle that drone racing must navigate before it can make a media rights breakthrough. The DCL claims to have sold over 10,000 tickets for its Berlin finale, and just last week took to the Champs-Elysées in Paris to showcase its offering.

Watching from the sidelines of the DRL’s UK debut this week as buzzing drones dip and dive through obstacles, the action has a touch of the Red Bull Air Race about it. And you can’t help but feel that’s where it belongs as a linear TV product – a well-produced magazine show that offers something different among sports broadcasters’ plethora of content. And live streaming of events will surely fall short of the huge numbers following eSports.

The core audience is clearly there – punters paid £27.50 ($35.13) for face price tickets in London this week – and licensing revenues among recreational ‘droners’ represents a viable revenue stream alone. And if heavyweights like Allianz continue to write eight-figure sponsorship cheques then the business of the industry’s newest ‘sport’ is not in question. 

Horbaczewski wants to build a “global circuit,” having added German and UK races this year to stops in North America, with CRCM Ventures, an investment firm with interests in USA and China, now on board to support expansion into China. 

As an onlooker, navigating between the blurred lines of PR
hype and commercial reality remains taxing. But the industry players investing in
drone racing suggest that it is worth keeping an eye on.

Are drone sports the future? No, probably not. But they surely have a future.