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Why Drone Racing League Is One Of The Most Innovative Companies Of 2017

DRL speeds into the sports mainstream with global media rights deals, brand sponsors, and flashy compelling action.

Why Drone Racing League Is One Of The Most Innovative Companies Of 2017

[Photo: Tobias Hutzler; Production: Ville Gobi Andersson]

In 2015, Nicholas Horbaczewski and a friend ventured to a field in Long Island, New York, where a group of guys were piloting home-built drones around PVC pipes and pool noodles. It was his first encounter with the phenomenon of drone racing. Ten months later, Horbaczewski launched the Drone Racing League, a series of spectacle-filled competitions in which pilots don VR-like headsets (which provide a drone’s-eye view of the course) and zip their souped-up planes through gnarly, neon-lit obstacle courses.

DRL held its first official race at the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium at the end of 2015. By the following fall, it had a major sponsor (Bud Light) and deals with three of the world’s top sports networks—ESPN, Sky Sports in the U.K., and Germany’s ProSieben—to broadcast its inaugural 10-episode, five-race season. The networks also invested in the league itself: Sky’s and ProSieben’s 7Sports networks are funding some of DRL’s operating costs, and Hearst Ventures, which owns a minority stake in ESPN, participated in a $12 million investment round last fall. In 2017, the league announced a multi-year sponsorship deal with the insurer Allianz.

"You’re seeing TV networks doing things they don’t normally do, in terms of committing to a new sport and growing it into a major spectator [event]," says Horbaczewski, who continues to find creative ways to introduce his league to new audiences. He recently signed a licensing deal to develop DRL-branded racing drones for kids.

This article is part of our coverage of the World's Most Innovative Companies of 2017.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2017 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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