ESPN to Broadcast Drone Racing as Nascent Sport Gains Backers

  • Sky, ProSiebenSat.1 invest in league as well as programming
  • Networks schedule 10 episodes of mini-helicopter races

Drone Racing League, where contestants race small helicopters through empty malls, stadiums and subway tunnels, will debut Thursday on Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN 2 network as part of an international TV rollout of the fledgling sport.

The 10 episodes, which were pre-recorded and last an hour each, feature six contestants and give viewers a video feed from the cockpit. Sky Plc, Rupert Murdoch’s satellite-TV business, will air the races in the U.K., while ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE will show them in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The latter two media companies are also investing in the league as part of a $12 million fund-raising, according to Chief Executive Officer Nicholas Horbaczewski. Drone Racing League was founded last year.

“Ninety-nine percent of the people have never heard of drone racing,” Horbaczewski said in an interview. “This is a great chance to put something out there so people can get familiar with it.”

Sports continue to be among the most sought-after programming by media companies, especially events that connect with hard-to-reach young, male viewers. Last week, John Malone’s Liberty Media Corp., agreed to buy the parent of Formula One racing for $8 billion, including assumed debt. The talent agency WME-IMG paid $4 billion to buy the mixed-martial arts UFC league in July.

ESPN has had its eye on drone racing for a year and a half and also made a deal with the rival Drone Sports Association, according to Matt Volk, director of programming and acquisitions at the sports network.

“We’re always exploring ways to acquire quality programming and be where fan interest is going over time,” he said, “and trying to be there at the start.”