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Drone Racing Nationals Have Got ESPN, Big Finance Flocking To The Sport

The past weekend’s National Drone Racing Championships brought together engineers, pilots, and developers from across the globe to compete for glory on an obstacle-filled racetrack on New York City’s Governor’s Island. Hosted by the burgeoning Drone Sports Association (DSA), the championships also became the first-ever drone racing event to be broadcast live on ESPN–one of several factors that’ve had major sponsors and investors from throughout the finance world circling around what PC Magazine says may be “the next big spectator sport.”

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Presented by action camera-makers GoPro, the 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships faced off 150 of the most accomplished drone pilots in the world, chosen through 20 different regional qualifying matches and from a pool of 1400 pilots competing around the country. The event’s top-of-the-line fliers were rigged with cameras to provide a drone’s-eye-view to pilot, who remotely steered their racing drones through obstacle courses designed to keep the mini-vehicles’ speed below 60 mph (though they’re often capable of doing 100).

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In addition to having its championship stream on ESPN3, the event picked up major sponsorships for the DSA from Ernst & Young and American International Group (AIG), among others. Jeremy Johnson , AIG’s president of U.S. commercial insurance, explained in a DSA press release, ”Drones have the capability to transform the way industries operate and serve their clients, [and we’re] excited to further support the acceptance and use of this innovative technology.” Keith Strier, innovation and digital enterprise strategy co-leader Ernst & Young, also praised drones’ potential on and off the racecourse; he told MarketWatch,

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It’s a sport, a form of recreation, but it has implications in other sectors we have been following, like streaming and virtual reality … Take all these different topics and put them into one nice little package. No other sport comes closer to capitalizing on them.

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MarketWatch points out that the past several years have seen the development of dozens of smaller-scale drone racing organizations, as well as larger leagues “that are all vying to become the Nascar of flying robots” as the sport takes off, including the DSA, the Drone Racing League and the International Drone Racing Association. None of the biggest organizations has secured the top spot yet to be spectator league of choice, the site notes, but several have seen a serious influx of investment and sponsorship dollars in the past few months. MarketWatch reports that the Drone Racing League seemingly secured a fresh $8 million in funding from such firms as RSE Ventures earlier this year, while the DR1 racing series will be streamed on the social platform Twitch later this month thanks to support from its Mountain Dew sponsors at PepsiCo.

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As Marketplace points out, drone racing’s soaring popularity as a spectator sport may have something to do with the mainstream rise of low-contact sports like poker–a game which many were surprised to first discover on TV several years ago, perhaps, but which continues to draw huge crowds at home. Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, told the program,

I never really thought of poker as much of a sport, until you could make a million dollars playing it, and then [have] ESPN televising it … That just shows you, if there’s money on the line, and if you have a passionate fan base out there, then you’re going to have viewers.

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And while last weekend’s National Drone Racing Championships only had competitors vying for $50,000 in prize money, the stakes are rising quickly for both pilots and investors. In October, the DSA and its sponsors will head to Oahu, HI for the international championships–perhaps picking up additional heavyweight backers along the way. Dr. Scot Refsland , Chairman of the DSA, commented,” This is a big step forward for DSA and drone racing as a sport. To have major brands like GoPro, AIG, EMC, and EY follow ESPN and become our partners is an incredible testament to the immense growth of drone racing.”