Look! Up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane.
No, it’s a drone, able to zoom at breakneck speeds through a complex three-dimensional obstacle course. And it’s coming to your living room.
In its latest foray into non-athletic sports — does the name Chris Moneymaker ring a bell? — ESPN has reached an agreement to broadcast the Drone Racing League (DRL) season. An introduction to drone racing will air Thursday night on ESPN2 and competition begins Oct. 23.
“It’s must-watch TV,” Matt Volk, director, programming and acquisitions at ESPN, said Wednesday. “We’re always exploring ways to deliver quality and exciting content. We see this as being an emerging sport with an emerging audience. We’re excited to see how it does, but we feel good about its growth potential.”
Sky, which broadcasts to the United Kingdom and Ireland, and 7Sports, a sports business cluster in Germany, also will air 10 one-hour episodes of the five-race 2016 DRL season, including a winner-take-all world championship Nov. 20.
Drone racing is simply the latest so-called extreme sport in this digital age, and ESPN and the DRL are banking on the rising popularity of the craft worldwide.
“We don’t come with a built-in audience. There’s no hiding that,” Drone Racing League CEO Nick Horbaczewski said. “They see a long-term opportunity here. They know how engaging the content is. It’s very attractive for a younger audience. The reaction is something very visceral for people.
“There’s a huge emergence going on right now of people who fly drones. This sport is all about that.”
Horbaczewski, who founded the DSL a little over a year ago, said drone racing has all the elements of auto racing and likens it to a real-life video game with a “real scientific element to it.”
The tiny craft used by the DSL will be unlike the more than one million consumer drones out there buzzing around. They will be custom built by the DRL so that all are identical with the same power output. That means all pilots will be racing on a fair playing field, and they will be doing the actual flying — not some pre-programmed GPS system.
“We want it to be a test of pilot skill rather than drone design,” Horbaczewski said.
Among those behind the controls once the season starts likely won’t be that hot-shot kid next door who buzzes the treetops in the neighborhood. The DSL will select just 12 elite pilots from around the world. The winner of the championship will receive a contract to be a full-time professional pilot in the league next year with a salary.
“We find incredibly talented pilots, people who are very, very good at flying drones,” Horbaczewski said. “But sometimes they just can’t manage their nerves. They’re not a performance athlete. People who are emerging are real performance athletes who can perform under pressure.”
Each event will include a series of races around complicated aerobatic race courses over two days in a bracket-style elimination format. Heats will be one to two minutes long, and fans who tune in likely will enjoy them. Horbaczewski says about half the drones crash every heat, and onboard cameras will offer a bird’s-eye view of the action.
“You get a real rush,” he said. “It’s a weird mix of the NFL and Formula One. You get that motor racing appeal.”
Without the human trauma.
“The amount of the carnage that goes on when you’re slamming into walls at 80 mph when you miss a turn — it’s exciting,” Horbaczewski said. “But there’s no moral hazard like there is when there’s a crash in an auto race.”
So far, drone racing’s Jeff Gordon has not surfaced. Whoever emerges as this year’s champion promises to be someone of that mold, though.
“This sport is exhausting for the pilots,” Horbaczewski said. “We only run a certain number of races because we can’t push them beyond a certain point. It is physically and brain-powerwise a very intense sport. It takes unbelievable concentration and physical discipline. It’s not totally non-athletic.”
Motor sports in America have been struggling to attract younger fans. The DSL is hoping to buck that trend.
“Our audience we know is younger,” Horbaczewski said. “I love Formula One, but watching the Monaco Grand Prix came down to one pit stop and one pass.”
Still, drone racing on TV?
“No way! I’ve been trying to get them to broadcast what we do for 30 years. They’re not interested,” said 67-year-old Gene Soucy, a champion aerobatic pilot. “I know why it’s going to work and why what we do doesn’t. The average guy can go out and buy a drone and anybody can fly one.”
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