As cord-cutting grows, cable networks know they must try new things, and experiment a little, to reach new audiences. ESPN’s latest experiment is with drone racing.
The sport is exactly what it sounds like: small, nimble aircraft race through obstacle courses at speeds of 50 to 80 miles per hour. The pilots stand on the ground, wearing goggles that give them a first-person view from a camera on the drone; pilots see what their drone sees.
When ESPN first televised drone racing last August from the Drone Sports Association (DSA), it was only streaming on its digital platforms, ESPN3 and WatchESPN. It was a low-risk effort.
ESPN2 will show five Drone Racing League events
Now ESPN has moved drone racing to traditional television, on ESPN2. It is a bet on the growing popularity of a still-very-niche techie pastime. As a sign of how niche: On Sept. 18, ESPN re-aired an edited version of the DSA’s 2016 national championships from August. It was the first time drone racing has been shown on ESPN (the TV channel, not digital-only). According to Nielsen, just 223,000 people tuned in.
In October and November, ESPN2 will show 10 episodes covering five races of the Drone Racing League (DRL). The programming began on Sept. 15 with an “Intro to Drone Racing” (106,000 viewers, Nielsen says) and starts up in full on Sunday, Oct. 23, with a re-air of the Intro followed by the first race.
The events have flashy names like “Miami Lights,” “L.A.Pocalypse” and “The Ohio Crash Site.”
While live drone racing on ESPN is a major coup for drone racing, it’s also a big boost to the DRL, at a time when no single drone racing organization is yet the de facto “big league”—the NFL, NBA, or MLB for drones.
DRL has only been around since 2015, and DSA, which was first to get on ESPN, only launched in 2014. By broadcasting all of DRL’s season this year, ESPN may inadvertently mint DRL as the top entity.
The sport is still so young that there are multiple events every year that call themselves “championships.” Matthew Crouch, a software engineer in Virginia and drone-racing hobbyist, went to two such events last year. “A coworker said to me, ‘Wait, I thought you already went to the national championships,'” he recalls. “It’s like how football had the NFL and AFL at the beginning. Right now there are a lot of different organizations trying to be the best drone league. And I don’t think anybody is on top yet.”
DRL thinks otherwise, and points to the ESPN deal as evidence. “I think DRL is very quickly becoming” the NFL of drone racing, says CEO Nick Horbaczewski, former chief revenue officer at the outdoor obstacle-course series Tough Mudder. “We will obviously have the largest media reach, we will be introducing most of the viewing public to this sport through our content.”
One of the biggest drone-racing organizations is MultiGP, which allows hobbyists to very easily organize their own local member chapter. That’s what Crouch did in February, starting up the Maryland Quad Racers in his local area of Ellicott City, Md. As president of a MultiGP chapter, Crouch has taken it on himself to go out and find local sponsors to advertise at his chapter’s events. And MultiGP held an informational summit over Labor Day weekend to encourage chapter organizers to do more of this.
Crouch managed to get his own employer, software firm Element 84, to commit some funds, as well as a comic book store he frequents in Annapolis. “I’ve been using ESPN to help,” Crouch says. “I tell people, ‘This sport has been on ESPN, it’s been on Science Channel.’ It’s really hard, and I’m not much of a marketing guy, but ESPN helps.”
Using ESPN to grow fledgling sports
ESPN2 has helped deliver other nascent adventure sports to larger audiences as well, such as CrossFit competitions and BattleFrog, a relay-race series that had its college championships air on main ESPN. Last year, ESPN2 showed a collegiate eSports tournament, though ESPN president John Skipper said just two years ago that eSports is “not a sport.”
DRL’s Horbaczewski prefers to compare drone racing to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the leading mixed martial arts series. “The UFC took a sport that most people had had very little exposure to, and built a global audience for it,” he says. “You’ll see us doing a lot of the same things they did, which is, they created a lot of opportunities for people to engage with the sport outside of the actual competitions.”
To pull that off, DRL has raised $12 million in new funding and inked partnerships not just with ESPN, but also with Sky (Europe’s sports network), 7Sports (Australia), and ProSieben (digital sports programming in Germany) to show events, and with MGM Television and producer Mark Burnett to develop unscripted shows. “We want to create content that can live in different ecosystems,” Horbaczewski says. “That creates more on-ramps for people to engage with the sport.”
For ESPN, showing DRL’s entire 2016 season “lets us merge storytelling, technology and competition into compelling weekly content,” says director of programming Matt Volk, “that we believe will appeal to a growing audience.”
The audience had better grow for drone racing to stay on ESPN past November. DSA founder Scot Refsland told ESPN he wants to build “the Nascar of drone racing.” But comparisons to Nascar are a bit of a stretch, for now. There are crashes, but they are more often pilots driving into an object than midair drone-to-drone collisions; when there is a midair collision, there is nothing at stake beyond the wallets of the pilots. Horbaczewski frames that as a positive: “It doesn’t have the moral hazard associated with auto racing, where someone could be killed or hurt,” he says. But for some potential fans, that could be a turnoff.
And it isn’t the case that anyone who enjoys flying drones will want to watch them race. Brandon Svitak, a sports television producer in Colorado, bought a drone last year and enjoys using it for photography, but doubts he will ever watch drone racing. “I understand the market for it,” he says, “but I have zero interest.”
Still, getting on ESPN is a big deal for drone racing. “To get on any kind of TV channel is awesome, but when you want to get the sport out to more people, you can’t get any bigger than ESPN,” says Crouch, who is eager for more people to learn about the hobby he loves.
Despite the myriad challenges to growing the audience, “I think we’ll get there. I just hope there aren’t too many bumps along the way.”