ESPN Has Decided Drone Racing Is a Sport Because Internet
If you doubted that drone racing was a real sport—that robots flying through garish neon gates belong in the same league as muscled athletes who actually sweat—consider this: It’s coming to ESPN.
This week, the International Drone Racing Association and ESPN announced a multi-year distribution deal. It’s not about to knock Sportscenter out of its time slot, however. The collaboration’s first event, the US National Drone Racing Championships, will be broadcast live on ESPN3, an online channel, in August, and then repackaged as a one-hour special to be aired elsewhere on the network.
The upside for the International Drone Racing Association, and drone racing in general, is easy to see. A deal with ESPN is a marker of legitimacy, the kind that’s already boosted peripheral athletic pursuits like MMA.
For ESPN, though, it’s a different kind of bet—one aimed at the digital generation. The network has struggled to keep up its subscription numbers as more and more Americans drop cable. The network has lost seven million subscribers in two years, along with about $550 million in annual revenue. To compensate, ESPN might go full internet and offer subscribers a standalone subscription service like HBO Now (or maybe not). Either way, getting into drone racing looks like bait for the young cohort that particularly enjoys its content in a digital form.
Drone racing is kinda like Formula 1, plus flying and minus the humanity at stake when stuff goes haywire. As a spectator sport, it’s been a hit online, where a few edited clips have cracked the 1.5 million views mark on YouTube. The contests could make for sweet visual experiences, with point-of-view camera feeds from all the racers, macro views of the course, and some virtual reality. As Quartz’s Mike Murphy argues, since the drones are small and speedy (try 60 mph), and the courses are large (the size of a football field), watching in person or even live is likely less entertaining than consuming a race “atomized and doled out in digital chunks.”
Nick Horbaczewski, the CEO of the US-based Drone Racing League, told WIRED last year that his producers have focused on creating “great content” than can be viewed, and then viewed again, online. In other words: the best way to consume drone racing is TBD. How ESPN plans to make its coverage compelling is … up in the air.
Production questions aside, this deal appears to be part of a larger ESPN strategy to capture the eyes of young people—and, in particular, young men who love the internet. They have “become one of the challenging demographics” for ESPN, says Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst at media consulting firm Leichtman Research Group. “Young males tend to be renters, to be movers, and these are the categories that are slower to subscribe to paid TV.”
Still, the network isn’t trying to actually induce more drone race-loving dudes to buy an ESPN subscription, Leichtman says. Rather, it’s hoping to add value to the overall package. Cumulatively, the network anticipates, its efforts will induce dudes to pick up the remote once again. “Drone racing is an opportunity to reach and connect with a growing and passionate audience,” Matthew Volk, ESPN’s head of programming and acquisitions said in a press release.
In fact, it’s not the first time ESPN has tried to translate the “sports internet” for a live, TV-like platform. The network broadcast a video game tournament in 2015 and 2016 (much to the consternation of some very confused sports fans and former network personality Colin Cowherd). And there seems to be real gold in e-sports. Twitch, which live broadcasts people playing video games, says its users watched 459,000 years’ worth of video in 2015.
ESPN is unlikely to get into video games, but it does want to be the go-to place for sports fans of all stripes. If web-driven “athletics” like drone racing continue their upward trajectory, ESPN will have to master those, too.