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Is drone racing the next NASCAR? Ask ESPN. (+video)

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The Drone Racing League is partnering with ESPN for a 10-episode season of drone racing. Is this an emerging Millennial sport? 

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    A pilot flies a small racing drone through an obstacle course on Governors Island, a former military installation in New York Harbor, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016. for the National Drone Racing Championship.
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Gentlemen, start your propellers. A new spectator sport is poised to zip onto ESPN: drone racing.

The sports network is partnering with the Drone Racing League to broadcast a 10-episode season of drone racing this fall, the League announced Wednesday. 

The announcement highlights an ongoing shift in public perception and use of drones, from their use in the military for combat and reconnaissance to commercial use for product deliveries, agriculture, and mapping to their latest role: entertainment.

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In an age where Millennial TV audiences are built around "nerdy" participatory events such as  battling robots, and video game competitions, and obstacle courses (American Ninja, Spartan races etc.), drone racing may be the next Big Thing.

"It's incredibly exciting," says Nicholas Horbaczewski, chief executive officer of the Drone Racing League. "[The ESPN broadcast] is a complete game changer for a sport that was an underground hobbyist sport 12 months ago. This is the birth of a new professional sport."

While that may sound like hype, his enthusiasm is based on the pace of change this backyard hobby has seen. Dozens of regional (and a few national) drone racing leagues, some paying prize money, have sprung in the past two years.

Preceded by news that the White House recently hosted its first drone workshop, and that Dubai recently hosted a World Drone Prix drone-racing event with $1 million in prize money, ESPN's drone racing broadcast is evidence that the once-fringe technology may be on the precipice of becoming mainstream entertainment.

"We're in the middle of a massive shift in the use of drones," says Mr. Horbaczewski. "There's a consumer drone revolution going on in front of a mainstream audience. People are flying [drones] for the thrill of flying it – not for commercial use. [The ESPN broadcast will] accelerate that revolution, make people more conscious of [drone racing], how drones function, how to build them, how to fly them ... this is an incredibly high-skilled sport."

Media outlets have called it "an insane new sport," "the next NASCAR," and "Star Wars meets NASCAR." What, exactly, is drone racing?

ESPN's broadcast will feature six stationary headset-wearing, joystick-wielding pilots navigating identical quadcoptors through obstacle courses across the country including Dolphin Stadium in Miami, an abandoned mall in Los Angeles, a laboratory in New York, a paper mill in Hamilton, Ohio, and an auto plant in Detroit. The drones will zip through these manufactured courses at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. Tiny cameras mounted on the drones will offer viewers a cockpit-like view of the action. The winner of this year's inaugural competition will get a salaried contract to race in the 2017 season.

"This is sci-fi brought to life," says Horbaczewski. "We want to evoke video games, so we built elaborate three-dimensional courses, a world we built for drones to race in.... It's a very unique sport that's incredibly entertaining."

In fact, ESPN's embrace of drone racing is part of a broader shift in what constitutes sport, or entertainment, especially for younger viewers like Millennials, says John Drew, assistant professor of digital media at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y.

"ESPN is now going to start airing drone racing because they see dollar signs associated with drone technology's growing fan base," he says. And while he says there will always be a portion of the population that distrusts the rapid emergence of mainstream drone adoption, "today's gamers, virtual reality fans, and technology savvy Millennials will largely embrace their increasing presence in our lives and not surprisingly, this demographic is highly attractive to advertisers, which helps drive TV programing decisions."

Entertainment takes it cues from culture, notes Quartz, and drone-racing appears well-poised to take flight.

"Rum-runners in the US modified their cars to make them fast enough to outrun the police during Prohibition in the 1920s. Then we started racing them against other modified cars because it was pretty fun."

Similarly, drones were born of necessity as unmanned military vehicles that could keep troops out of harms way. "Then, rather like the Jeep after World War II, we commercialized the drone, made them smaller and cheaper and found ways to use them at home," notes Quartz. "We’ve always modified technical achievements – for good or for bad purposes – and turned them into sport, and drone racing is no different."

Drone racing, may, in fact, be the ideal sport for today's viewers: a blending of digital and real in a way that resonates with consumers brought up on video games, science fiction, and consumer technology.

"It has all the heritage of auto racing – high speeds, loud vehicles, explosive crashes, interesting technology, interaction – in a video-game-like dynamic," says Horbaczewski. "It brings to life the things you see in sci-fi movies."

The US-based Drone Racing League has raised some $12 million, which includes investment funding from Sky Sports Mix, MGM, Hearst Ventures, and Matt Bellamy, lead singer of Muse, The Guardian reports. Sky will broadcast the 10-race season in Britain. 

While professional drone racers aren't making a living at this yet, some see the ESPN deal as a tipping point.

"There will be money through advertising with ESPN airing this. Then you'll have people subscribe to their favorite pilots on Twitch or watch their content on YouTube. There is also traditional ways like sponsorships," Keith Strier, who co-leads innovation and digital enterprise strategy for sponsor Ernst & Young, tells Market Watch. "I think drone pilots will benefit sooner rather than later."

Horbaczewski is optimistic that audiences, especially younger viewers, will embrace drone racing.

"One of the great things about the Millennial audience is that it's not accepting of other people's definition of things – whatever they like to watch is a sport," he says, pointing to e-sports, poker, video games, and even CrossFit as recent entrants to the industry. "The definition of sport is broad and I don't think anyone gets to define that but the audience."

Competition is scheduled to begin on Oct. 23, with episodes on Thursday and Saturday nights on ESPN2. ESPN plans to show the two-hour championship on Nov. 20.

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