Little more than an idea just a few years ago, professional drone racing has become a fairly popular fringe sport. With skilled pilots, high-end racing drones, and occasional television slots on ESPN networks, the Drone Racing League in particular has generated enough attention to spark some discussions about whether or not it can in fact become a major spectator activity. To that point, Red Bull looked at drone racing’s growth so far and called it the sport of the future just last October.
That’s an exciting prediction from a company that knows what it’s doing in fast-paced sporting action. But what does it really mean? Just how big would drone racing have to become in order to live up to this proclamation? And is there potential that short-term growth could ultimately just reveal a cap, and that drone racing would settle into a niche space all its own?
We can’t answer all of these questions. However, with drone racing still relatively small, we can think of things another way that might reveal some of the possible paths for the sport. Specifically, which of the other fringe sports (or “sports”) from the past few decades might provide the best model for what to expect from the DRL, and drone racing as a whole?
The most common comparison to the DRL tends to be eSports, for a few different reasons. For one thing, there’s a heavy tech component, and “sport,” at least in the eyes of many, is a bit of a stretch as a classification. By that same token however, another positive aspect of this comparison is that like eSports, drone racing has an everyman component to it; anyone can pilot a drone, without having to be a world-class athlete (or even a good one). If drone racing does wind up following a similar trajectory, it will indeed become a full-fledged global phenomenon. The key issue with this as a projection, though, is that there is not nearly the existing worldwide interest in drones and drone racing that there is in video games.
The so-called “Poker Boom” of the early 2000s is another interesting comparison, and may in fact be the best one. Poker transformed rapidly from a known game to a televised phenomenon. It was on ESPN despite not being a traditional sport, and it showcased something anyone could do, being done by masters. And when you describe it that way, drone racing is actually quite similar. This raises interesting questions about the long-term viability of the sport. On the one hand, the Poker Boom arguably sparked the growth of the entire online casino industry we know today. Beyond poker, pages’ worth of games in the slot, jackpot, roulette, and table game categories are now popular online all over the world. So, we may not see the World Series of Poker on TV as much as we used to, but there is in some sense a legacy. This speaks to the potential of drone racing flaming out in some sense, yet remaining popular and influential in online circles.
If you follow UFC, you may be aware that it’s actually been struggling of late. However, its rise to the top was virtually unprecedented in the last several decades of sports. It was essentially a brand new sport when it first arrived on the scene, and catapulted to incredible heights. There were fighters who became massive celebrities, events that were viewed by tens of millions, sold out arenas, and even films made about the sport. It’s difficult to imagine drone racing following a similar path, but if nothing else the UFC’s rise can provide a blueprint for how the DRL should grow, rather than necessarily how it will. For instance, it’s said that a focus on the fan experience helped UFC surge, and on a related note the fighters were very recognizable and familiar. It’s this last point though which drone racing should emulate UFC. As of now, there just isn’t enough focus on the athletes, who have the potential to rope in so many more fans if and when they reveal themselves to be entertainers in addition to pilots.