Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Sky to Broadcast Drone Racing, Invests $1 Million in Organizer

  • U.S., European broadcasters join in showing nascent sport
  • Competitors use virtual-reality headsets to pilot their craft

After gaining a following on YouTube, drone racing is accelerating its shift to mainstream television.

The Drone Racing League, in which 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. Two European television providers -- Sky Plc in the U.K. and ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE in Germany -- said Wednesday that they would invest in the league and show the contests.

Sky and ProSiebenSat.1 are taking part in a $12 million fundraising for the league, according to Drone Racing Chief Executive Officer Nicholas Horbaczewski. The race circuit 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.”

Virtual Reality

In drone racing, pilots don virtual-reality headsets to fly identical, custom-designed craft through three-dimensional courses. Under the deals with the broadcasters, 10 hour-long episodes were prerecorded, featuring six contestants and giving viewers a video feed from the cockpit.

Sports continues 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 Group agreed to buy the parent of Formula One racing. The talent agency WME-IMG agreed to buy the mixed-martial arts UFC league in July.

“Drone races will be the Formula One of the future,” Zeljko Karajica, who heads ProSiebenSat.1’s sports business 7Sports, said in the statement. “It’s the perfect combination of physical racing, eSports and virtual reality.”

Sky is betting on more exotic sports to lure viewers as BT Group Plc is challenging it in soccer broadcasts. Sky, which counts Rupert Murdoch’s Twenty-First Century Fox Inc. as its largest shareholder, is also facing cost pressure amid more expensive TV soccer-rights deals in the U.K. and Germany.

In June, Sky joined with broadcaster ITV Plc to support a new channel that brings so-called eSports, including competitive video gaming, to fans in the U.K. and Ireland.

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.

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