Is the Drone Racing League the Future of Sports?

Nicholas Horbaczewski||
Drone Racing League founder and CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski still remembers the first time he was introduced to the sport he’s now a pioneer of. “I felt like I touched the future,” he says. Piloting the drones at the field where Horbaczewski was looking on were hobbyists—a polite term for amateurs. Once the awe shook off, Horbaczewski worked on putting his Harvard Business School degree to good use by taking drone racing to a new level. Namely, he wanted to create a professional sport. [inlinead align="left"]"We’re creating a really cool experience where thousands of people can watch a sport in a context they’ve never seen before."[/inlinead] Next week, Horbaczewski’s vision becomes a reality. DRL will unveil its first race on a YouTube channel near you on Feb. 22—arguably the day the future of sports begins. Horbaczewski, former senior vice president of revenue and business development at Tough Mudder, doesn’t quite see it like that. “When you get in a conversation that this is the future of sports, it’s kind of like this is a sport from the future,” he says. When the race airs for the first time online, Horbaczewski knows many viewers will say the sport resembles sci-fi movies because of the high-speed action. In fact, he welcomes comparisons to classic films likes “Star Wars” and “Tron,” in part because they spark imagination. He also thinks he has a propeller up on them. “Those things are fake or scripted or CG; this is real.” It will have the look of a movie. Since December’s inaugural race in an empty Sun Life Stadium (home of the Miami Dolphins) in Miami, Horbaczewski’s team has been busy editing race footage to form a cohesive package viewers can follow. The drones flew with attached cameras, and the race was also filmed with ground cameras and aerial cinematography. Entertainment comes in the form of clarity. Audiences and spectators will need to know who’s winning and losing, as well as understand what the course looks like—a challenge when using facilities not typically associated with sports. “Expectations are extremely high,” he says. “They have been set by sci-fi movies and other professional sports. We all have a good sense of what a professional sport looks like when we watch it on TV or the Internet.” [embed][/embed] DRL’s next great challenge is racing in front of live audiences. Horbaczewski likes to compare his league to Formula One racing, which goes around the world thrilling live audiences. By 2017, he hopes to have crowds in the thousands watching as highly skilled pilots maneuver their quadcopters through unusual venues. An abandoned mall in Los Angeles, site of the next DRL event, may seem ordinary within a year. Horbaczewski says it’s possible a castle could host a race. “We’re creating a really cool experience where thousands of people can watch a sport in a context they’ve never seen before,” he says. That takes time, though, and innovation. DRL had to develop an insurance policy specifically for flying drones—not nearly as sexy a job as creating the racing vehicles, but just as important to the league’s long-term health. As is, each race will have a significant impact on a host city’s economy. A crew of about 100 stayed for a week in Miami, representing 600 room nights. Higher numbers are likely to come. While looking to the future, Horbaczewski can look to the present for proof. “We often look to the analogy of e-sports,” he says. “I remember a couple of years ago a lot of people said nobody is going to watch this, and then a few months ago [League of Legends] sold out Madison Square Garden two nights in a row. I think new technology-enabled sports excite audiences. Having been at our Miami event, it is so exciting to watch this live. It is an adrenaline-filled form of racing that I know will really attract an audience.” [inlinead align="left"]"A lot of phone calls we get are cities saying, 'We have a story to tell; help us tell it with drone racing.'"[/inlinead] The league offered a taste of the race when it went public in January with plans to create a year-round season complete with a championship. The announcement struck a nerve in the zeitgeist of a world obsessed with technology and virtual reality. As of mid-February, DRL online content had received more than 30 million views. Its YouTube channel had 30,000 subscribers and counting. Then there is the incredible amount of media attention benefiting the league and its partners. “We have a benefit over an event like Tough Mudder, where I think we did a good job partnering with CVBs because we generate compelling media,” says Horbaczewski. “If you look at something like the Dolphins' stadium, for example, it had almost a half-billion dollar renovation and it didn’t get much coverage. But the number of articles they’ve gotten about the stadium and renovations there because of the drone race has been tremendous. Other cities have found out pretty quickly, and a lot of phone calls we get are cities saying, ‘We have a story to tell; help us tell it with drone racing.’”