In early 2015, Nicholas Horbaczewski saw an amateur sports race at a Home Depot store on Long Island. It was unlike anything he’d ever seen before. At that moment, he realized that the future of sports might be out of human control – and that’s the point.
“I just thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen,” Horbaczewski said of drone racing. “I think the sport is amazing to watch, I’d love to watch more of it. My passion was the question of – how do we bring [drone racing] to a broader audience? How do we bring it to a mainstream audience around the globe?”
Nearly five years, Horbaczewski is now CEO and founder of the Drone Racing League, which hosted its first-ever live drone race in the United States on Sept. 8. With a sold-out crowd of 4,207 at Chase Field in Phoenix – home of the Arizona Diamondbacks – it provided fans the first glance into a world where people flock not to watch home runs or touchdowns, but drones flying from 0 to 90 miles per hour in less than one second.
Before creating the DRL in 2015, Horbaczewski’s inspiration behind it originated in Australia. Melbourne and Sydney have been experimenting with drone racing as far back as 2010, he said. Over time, the sport expanded internationally – with leagues everywhere from Hong Kong to Venezuela.
Drone racing’s global growth eventually made its way onto Youtube, where Horbaczewski began consuming it. With the sport still mainly in the underground scene, he was determined to provide a worldwide spotlight to it. Within a year, he created the DRL – which since its inception has attracted over 90 million viewers in over 90 countries.
“We’ve got thousands of people coming to our live events now,” Horbaczewski said. “I think we’re on the path to realizing that grand vision about building the next sport – something futuristic, technology-enabled that people can engage with.”
Despite being in its infancy, the DRL has emerged as arguably the world’s biggest drone racing organization. The inaugural 2016 season drew over 75 million viewers across its streaming platforms – both online and on TV through ESPN, Sky Sports, and German-based ProsiebenSat.1. In 2018, DRL made NBC and NBC Sports Network its new broadcast partner and negotiated a live-streaming deal with Twitter.
With DRL’s growing social media presence – it has over 2 million followers across all social media channels – Will Exline, senior partner manager on Twitter’s sports team, saw its online appeal. The social media platform is constantly looking to diversity its sports portfolio, and DRL was viewed as an ideal differentiator.
During the 2019 DRL Allianz World Championship Season Premiere on August 11, more than 6 million fans live-streamed the event on Twitter and saw roughly 500,000 viewers on NBC. The next live stream will be taking place on Oct. 16, while the broadcast from the Chase Field showing on Sept. 8 will be available on Sunday, Dec. 29.
“Beyond the viewership we’ve seen, it’s been a lot of fun watching new fans discover the content and react in real-time as the action unfolds,” Exline said. “As the sport continues to grow, we’re excited to continue working closely with DRL to find new ways to deliver the best content to their fans.”
Another partner which has enjoyed the unconventional nature of DRL is Allianz. With global partnerships ranging from Bayern Munich Football Club to the Museum of Modern Art, the aviation insurance company took a particular interest in watching DRL prosper given its grassroots background. Horbaczewski says its core fan base consists of men aged 18 to 35 interested in technology and esports – a demographic that Allianz identified as one to help shape its future products and services.
Paul Budd, Allianz’s head of global partnerships, says that the company started hosting DRL world championship races in 2018. Held in locations such as Nice, France, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the DRL is quickly growing its international presence. Add in future U.S. races across Miami and Minneapolis, he’s confident that DRL’s sold-out show in Phoenix will eventually be the standard and not an anomaly.
“The public events we have held through the DRL Allianz World Championships have attracted people from all walks of life,” Budd said. “These large scale events is where we see the sport evolving and I see no reason why we couldn’t pack out a stadium like Allianz Field in Minneapolis with over 15,000 spectators in the future. As the sport grows, we will enrich our understanding of what millions of passionate fans want from us as a global leader in insurance. We have every expectation that we can become a relevant partner in their lives through collaborations with incredible sporting platforms such as Drone Racing League.”
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If there were any disappointments from DRL’s unprecedented live race on Sept. 8, Horbaczewski says it’d be in seating capacity – or lack thereof. Even though it had a sold-out crowd at Chase Field, it also meant that hundreds, if not thousands, were unable to attend. Doors opened at 5:30 p.m. MST for the 7:30 race, and already lines of at least 500 people formed outside trying to get in.
At that moment, Horbaczewski saw that future DRL events need more of an emphasis around the fan experience. People are not only there for the actual races, but to also meet the people orchestrating them: the pilots. Once his team starts building around the racing experience, that’s when Horbaczewski sees his brainchild making a deeper impact with its fanbase.
“You always learn these lessons as you go and you learn how fans want to consume the content,” Horbaczewski said. “We’ll keep going, but I think that the good news is – it’s all the problem of people being interested and passionate about the sport.”