ESPN is in the midst of business-wide cuts. However, these financial deficiencies have not dissuaded the company from purchasing the broadcasting rights for the Drone Racing League to be televised on ESPN or ESPN2 extremely soon.
The Drone Racing League, or DRL, is a relatively new organization that has received an injection of funding in the form of $12 million. This surge in capital has come from RSE Ventures and Courtside Ventures, companies backed by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, respectively.
Drones are hot word in today’s political climate, however this version of drones are nothing like what is flying over the Middle East. Instead they are small quadcopters that are being piloted by competitors wearing what looks like a virtual reality headset and holding a complicated looking controller. Think an Xbox controller, joysticks, button, etc., and multiply its complexity by ten.
Drones will fly through an obstacle course in a time trial competition, topping out at speeds of around 80 miles per hour. Obstacles could include progressively smaller circles, slow-moving fans, and boxes, on courses that could be housed in a NFL football stadium or in a small atrium.
“It’s an exciting, real-life experience mixed with video-gamelike dynamics,” said Nicholas Horbaczewski, the chief executive and founder of the league. “These races are short sprints. It has that thrill of a 100-meter dash or horse racing.”
Competitors can race from a virtual cockpit as small cameras are attached to the drones with the video being live streamed to the competitors headset, allowing them – and the TV viewer – to get a driver’s seat view of the course while the drone speeds through and around obstacles.
ESPN has had an exodus of talent in the past few years, losing many media personalities to the likes of rival companies like Fox Sports and NBC Sports. Additionally, the networks has lost 3.2 million television subscribers between mid-2014 through July 2015. Well respected personalities like Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons, have left the network for greener pastures, while inflammatory talent like Skip Bayless (who just recently left the network as well) and Stephen A. Smith seemed to be embraced.
With this is in mind ESPN has continued to turn to different avenues to generate revenue through viewership by turning to alternative sports like the BattleFrog Obstacle Race Series which pits teams of college kids raving head to head in a relay race style obstacle course. As well as ESPN’s recent promotion of ESports, tournaments that pit collegiate teams against each other, battling in a video game called Heroes of the Storm.
These alternative sports along with some ESPN classic pseudo-sports like the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the World Series of Poker, have created a unique lineup of programming that ESPN hopes will capture a new and hopefully growing landscape of viewers.
“Coverage of DRL lets us merge storytelling, technology and competition into compelling weekly content that we believe will appeal to a growing audience,” said Matthew Volk, ESPN’s director of programming and acquisitions.
When I grew up I tuned in to ESPN every morning to watch the re-run of last night’s Sports Center before heading off to class. This was my way to catch up on all the best plays and scores from the NBA, NFL, and MLB. These games were often televised after my bed time, so this was my primary way to stay in the know.
Now, kids will be tuning in to morning editions of Sports Center to catch up on the Drone Racing League or watch highlights of the latest video game tournament. This change may just be the right combination of fast-paced action and interactive media that could give ESPN a much-needed resurgence. Or, it could a last gasp in the steady downfall of the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
ESPN will televise 10 one-hour episodes airing on Thursday nights and culminating with the Drone Racing League World Championship on November 20.