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Inside Events: Drone Racing League

22 Feb, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with CEO and Founder, Nicholas Horbaczewski

Drone Racing League (DRL) is the premier drone racing circuit for elite first-person view (FPV) pilots worldwide. DRL is a technology, sports and media company that creates drone racing content with mass appeal. In 2017, DRL is hosting a global series of six races, the Allianz World Championship, to be broadcast on ESPN, Sky Sports, Prosieben and other leading broadcast channels around the world. Founded in 2015, DRL is a privately held company headquartered in NYC.

Sports Destination Management: Drone racing is obviously a new sport, but it’s growing rapidly. What do you attribute that to?

Nicholas Horbaczewski: It’s a pro spectator sport, and from an audience standpoint, it’s a great family-friendly event. Our sport is the real-life version of a video game.

SDM: Is it hard initially to get people to understand what drone racing is?

Horbaczewski: We don’t have trouble with that. Mostly, you mention the words, ‘drone racing,’ and people’s eyes light up and they get excited. They immediately start imagining incredible things. As a society, we have been primed to expect this for decades. Look at Star Wars and the battle scenes there.

SDM: Is there a season for drone racing?

Horbaczewski: It’s a year-round sport. Our 2016 season really spanned the whole year.

SDM: What has the growth been like?

Horbaczewski:  We had 28 million people tuning into our races. That’s up from zero in in 2015.

SDM: When you’re looking for facilities to host drone racing, what are you looking for?

Horbaczewski: We are going to be building an entire 3-D race course and we want to make it interesting. What we’re generally looking for are interesting large indoor spaces. We’ve put on events everywhere from an NFL stadium to an abandoned mall to some of the largest office buildings in the U.S. For example, we used Bell Labs in New York, which was a really cool, unique space. When we were in Hamilton, Ohio, we used an abandoned mill in the town.

SDM: Does it have to be an open space?

Horbaczewski: It doesn’t need to be a mammoth concert hall but it does need to be quite large – 60,000 to 100,000 square feet is what we’re looking for. The tracks we build are measured at a mile or longer, so we really do need substantial indoor spaces where we can fly these drones. We also tend to use areas like concourses and tunnels in stadiums, places nobody else might want. We’ve used abandoned subway systems, construction sites – really, the sky is the limit. We get a ton of good suggestions for venues.

SDM: What is the demographic for drone racing?

Horbaczewski: Our core audience is men ages 18 to 35 but the sport is open to people of both genders. Plus, it’s a great science and technology event. Families like taking their kids to it. We are seeing the demographics really expand. It has an appeal to everyone from retirees to groups of children. It’s really a diverse and widely appealing sport – and it’s non-politically complicated.

SDM: The sport is very young so economic impact figures may be hard to come by, but do you have any preliminary ideas about its value?

Horbaczewski: I’d say the economics are substantial. This is a major sports project. We bring in a crew of over 100 people, so in just our personnel alone, the spend is significant. Towns that have worked with us have really loved us. We bring a lot of interest.

SDM: If someone is interested in hosting an event, what should they do?

Horbaczewski: We best thing is for a convention and visitors bureau or a sports commission to reach out to us directly. We plan all our events. We are already into planning our 2018 season.

SDM: Is it a big spectator sport?

Horbaczewski: We have a couple hundred spectators; that’s all we allow right now. We can be in unique places, but those don’t always have a lot of space for people to watch. We are very focused on the broadcast opportunities for drone racing, and it’s being shown on ESPN in the U.S. and on Sky Sports in the U.K., as well as others. But the pressure to allow more and more people in is high, and people do want to show up so in time, we will have much larger live audiences.

SDM: DRL has been picking up some big sponsors.

Horbaczewski: Our partnerships have brought a lot of legitimacy to the sport. We’ve worked with Bud Light and Allianz, which is a global insurance company and one of the most powerful brands in the world. They not only make it interesting but expand what we’re doing but they can bring a huge powerful name to the event.

SDM: Something that has made the news recently has been the FAA drone regulations. Do you have to work within those?

Horbaczewski: We have a great relationship with the FAA. Our events aren’t affected by the regulations since we race indoors, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take an active role. We really are on the forefront of safety; in fact, we developed the manual for putting on a safe drone race, www.droneracingsafety.org.  We developed it with our insurance partners and with others in the field.

SDM: What is the biggest misconception about drone racing?

Horbaczewski: There are several. People think sometimes it’s dangerous – it’s not. You’re using a closed course, and you’re working according to safety regulations. People also might think it’s too complicated or they don’t have a  venue in their town that would work – the reality is they probably do have something that could work. It’s a huge sport and it’s gaining popularity at a huge rate. It drives a lot of press and brings a lot of attention to cities.

SDM: There has been talk of eSports moving up to the Olympics. Do you see drone racing there someday?

Horbaczewski: The host of the South Korea 2018 Games is looking at having drone racing as a demonstration sport. Robotic sports in general are growing so it would be an exciting move.

Note: The website for The Drone League can be found here.

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