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.