Drone Racing League: Fantasy Sport for the Real World

March 20, 2017

When you first hear about the Drone Racing League (DRL) and its $100,000 salaries, you have to double check to be sure you’re not reading an article in the Onion. However, as the facts come into focus, you start to wonder why you never heard of it before.


For starters, founder and CEO Nick Horbaczewski comes from Tough Mudder where he served as Chief Revenue Officer. If that sports background isn’t enough, investors include Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

As a newly minted startup, last year DRL signed a broadcast deal with ESPN and secured a sponsorship with Bud Light. Overall, 28 million people watched the first season of races.

This year, Allianz Insurance has been secured as a global title sponsor and the second season is set to be broadcast by ESPN and Sky Sports into 75 countries. The upcoming season consists of six global tournaments starting in Miami and finishing in London.

This is for real.

According to Business Insider, “The drones reach speeds of up to 80 miles-per-hour … all the league’s pilots fly the same drones, made by DRL.” In fact, “16 pilots will compete in three of the first four races in Miami, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Boston to accumulate league points. The top 12 will go through to the semi-final in Munich from which the top eight will compete in the London final.”

Traditionally, most sports leagues are focused on live events, but that’s not the current model for DRL. According to Horbaczewski, “We’re focused on post-produced content. It’s the most compelling way to see this.”

Meanwhile, CNBC reports that DRL pilots can earn $100,000 per year which allows them to focus on the league full time and potentially become modern equivalents of NASCAR drivers, which is having significant problems of its own with attendance and ratings.

The Connection to Radio

Reading a Sports Illustrated article from earlier this year (they’re as good at securing major PR placements as they are at sponsors), the opportunity for radio came into focus.

“Sports leagues are not companies. They’re ecosystems. In the center of it is this thing called your league. That’s really just the gravitational center, and you need to get an orbit around you, all of these other people. You somehow need to make it all happen at once. You need broadcasters, you need fans, you need athletes, you need sponsors, you need venues. You need to get everyone aligned and rotating around this idea every step of the way … No one of them is enough but all of them together in alignment creates a sport.”

If sports leagues aren’t confined to being companies, then in a similar way, there’s an opportunity to re-imagine radio.

Your station isn’t a frequency on the dial. It is an ecosystem. In the center of it is this thing called your brand. That’s really just the gravitational center, and you need to get an orbit around you, all of these other people. You somehow need to keep it happening all at once. You have a signal, personalities, music, listeners, sponsors, email club, website, mobile app, stream, social media platforms, live events, station vehicles, street teams, charitable fundraisers and contests. You need to get everyone aligned and rotating around the value proposition of the brand every step of the way … No one of them is enough but all of them together in alignment creates an ecosystem that can compete and win in a mobile world.

In our recent column about the Illusion of Infinite Choice, several thoughtful observers raised questions about whether station apps have enough Top of Mind Awareness and stickiness to make them one of the three apps that people consistently use on their mobile devices?

While there are a variety of perspectives to consider with that line of questioning, fundamentally radio has an opportunity to think bigger and more holistically. If stations are an ecosystem, the question becomes is each local brand strong and relevant enough that people are consistently making it a priority and seeking it out across platforms?

This would include engaging with a social media post from the station or even better, engaging with something posted by another listener, opening a station email, listening on-air or to the stream, spending money with an advertiser or attending a station event.

None of these elements are sufficient on their own, but together each one contributes to a thriving local ecosystem that has monetization opportunities throughout.

On behalf of Catherine Jung, Doug Smith and everyone at DMR/Interactive, thanks for reading and working to drive radio forward.

Andrew Curran, President and COO