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ESPN to Televise Drone Racing

April 13, 2016

Drone racing is on its way to becoming mainstream
“Drone racing gives anyone the ability to fly like a superhero.”
Drone racing will be televised on ESPN thanks to a first-of-its-kind deal with International Drone Racing Association (IDRA).

What began as a casual chat with ESPN after the 2015 Drone Nationals turned into a multi-year international distribution deal between the sports broadcasting network and IDRA, a global drone racing and extreme rotor sports organization based in Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA.

The deal took about eight months to coordinate, says Scot Refsland, chairman of the IDRA, and most of that time was spent with lawyers hashing out the language of the contract, since drone racing has never been broadcast on television before.

The 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships, to be held in New York in August, and the 2016 World Drone Racing Championships, which will be held in October, will be the first events broadcast under the new deal. The races will first be streamed live on ESPN3, then repurposed and televised as a one-hour special on an ESPN network after each event.

Matthew Volk, ESPN director, programming and acquisitions, said in a press release, “We look forward to providing drone racing fans a larger platform to access this exciting world. Drone racing is an opportunity to reach and connect with a growing and passionate audience.”

Drone racing has been increasing in popularity this year, in part due to the World Drone Prix, for which the IDRA was consulting producer, and the Drone Racing League (DRL). While the DRL got out of the gate first by releasing footage of its first race in late February, competing leagues are hot on its tail.

Refsland says the IDRA focuses on live-event drone racing and drone racing as a professional live sport, compared to the DRL, which puts out prerecorded, highly edited drone racing footage.

“For the moment, they’re competing more with Bridezilla than they are with us because it’s a reality show style,” says Refsland. He points out that the “reality show” flair of the DRL is helping develop a market for drone racing, and it’s in both IDRA’s and DRL’s interest to build out a spectator sport.

The IDRA is developing new racetracks that will be compelling and immersive for fans.

“We’re moving the spectators directly into the racing tracks, very similar to when you go to an aquarium and you go to the Plexiglas, and suddenly you see the sharks swimming two inches from you,” says Refsland. “That’s kind of where we’re headed, so the spectator can be highly engaged in the racing, whether they’re at the live races or they’re remotely watching it on ESPN.”

In order to make drone racing more mainstream, there needs to be a compelling story and a human element, says Refsland.  He says the organization recently hired several executive producers who have produced everything from the Olympics to ESPN programming in the past, and is also working with universities who specialize in cinematic art and next-generation virtual reality to help bring storytelling and the human element to IDRA’s drone races.

“We‘re really looking at how the younger consumers really experience broadcast, not just traditional screens like TV to big screen to mobile phone, but virtual reality,” he says.

He also points out that innovation for the sport of drone racing moves fast, so the advancements happening in the sport will echo out to the rest of the drone community, too.

You can watch the first televised drone racing event in August on ESPN, and be a part of the historical moment.

“We’ve got to put our money where our mouth is and produce a really epic event, two epic events,” says Refsland.

To get your full (or first) dose of drone racing check out our coverage of the World Drone Prix and DRL.