If you see what appears to be tiny UFO’s zooming across your screen when you tune into ESPN, the company is betting that you will find it entertaining. This past June, ESPN began televising the Drone Racing League, which is in its second season.
Over 30 countries worldwide have hosted some sort of drone racing, and the popularity is expected to increase substantially. This year’s championship prize is $100,000, and a group of sixteen racers with nicknames including Nurk, Jawz and Wild Willy will be vying for that stack of cash.
To better understand this league you need to understand the equipment being used. In the early 2000s, the CIA began using unarmed drones, formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UVA for short. Years later drones were being armed and sent into battle, and were explored for other tactical uses. These machines could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, and have become one of our military’s most useful weapons.
The models drones used in the Drone Racing League are not quite on that caliber, but are still very impressive. The cost of one of these racing drones will range from $500 to a little over $1000. They can speed up to around 90 miles per hour as they race through the course. As for the course, events are being held in sports stadiums, malls and other areas, and are set up as an obstacle course with checkpoints throughout that the pilots must send their drones through. This years version is called the DRL Racer3 which is equipped with a five cell, 1,800 milliamp battery. This model can go from 0 to 80 mph in about a second. Yes, one second.
The pilots are recruited from amatuer drone racing leagues, and there is also a video game racers can play to try out for the pros. To keep things fair, the league has adopted a stock car like set of rules. All of the drones are built by the league for the racers. The racers are not allowed to touch the drone, and all the equipment being used is standardized by the DRL.
These pilots need top notch hand-eye coordination, and nerves of steel. This is as fast paced and intense as any video game you could imagine, not to mention there is large sum of money waiting on the winner.
The DRL and drone racing fans had to have been excited when the news broke about the TV deal, however fans have complained about ESPN’s coverage of the sport, saying the network has been spotty on making sure the programs are actually aired at all. On Facebook, the DRL page has over 500,000 likes, and if you read into the comments section, you will not have to read far before running into a few complaints.
Fans seem to be much more in favor of watching the sport on their computers or some other type of streaming content. It seems to be evident that this hi-tech sport comes along with some hi-tech fans.
ESPN had to be thrilled with early ratings, showing on Sunday June 25 that the DRL outnumbered both IndyCar and Formula 1 racing series for the day. While IndyCar and Formula 1 combined for around 275k viewers, the DRL brought over 300k on its own. That was a big statement for a sport trying to stake its claim against other already proven racing leagues.
The DRL also just closed a $20 million investment deal with Sky, Liberty Media and Lux Capital. That is serious money for a sport just getting its feet wet, but the sky’s the limit for this new racing series. The question for ESPN is just how serious they want to take the sport itself. If they want the fanbase and ratings to grow, they will have to be reliable for their fans. For a company that is losing subscribers at a rate that caused their massive layoffs this summer, it seems like they would be a bit more accommodating to its newest set of fans.