The Drone Racing League this week announced a new president, and she’s got an incredible resume that could propel the niche sport to broader viewership with bigger names pouring money into it.
DRL’s new president is Rachel Jacobson, the former NBA SVP of Global Partnerships. During her 21 years at the NBA, she closed nearly $1 billion in partnership sales and earned numerous accolades including Sports Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 Award.
“Leaders across the sports and tech industries love and respect Rachel — she’s tenacious, strategic and laser focused on delivering ROI for partners, and we’re excited for her to join the league,” said DRL CEO and Founder, Nicholas Horbaczewski in a prepared statement.
Jacobson’s new role as DRL President will primarily be focused on global partnerships and media rights deals.
DRL has already seen growth over the last year, due to an increase in live competitions and global esports tournaments , as well as broadcasting and streaming on major networks like ESPN, NBC, Twitter and Weibo.
The racing league said that over the past year, average viewership increased by nearly 200%, virtual drone racing participation increased by 90%, and its social media fanbase grew by 60%.
That said, drone racing has a number of challenges that Jacobson will have to overcome. Drone racing is primarily founded on DIY drones. With limited, ready-to-fly racing drones, less technologically-inclined newcomers may be less inclined to try racing themselves.
The sport also has struggled to create compelling characters, the way traditional sports have positioned individual athletes as compelling characters (ie. Simone Biles in gymnastics) that people root for. DRL also has few women racers, and it will be interesting to see if a female president changes that.
And while DRL has a lot of money, the sport isn’t necessarily flush with cash. Even most of the top racers aren’t making enough money to do it full time.
But some experts think the sport is still in its nascency. A 2020 report from Transparency Market Research predicted that the drone-racing market could reach $237 million by the end of 2020, and grow to $786 million by 2027.
That could be aided by big players like DJI, which has increasingly been developing FPV and racing-related products. DJI last summer launched a new ecosystem of FPV (first-person view) products. Even the Mavic Air 2, which launched on Monday, comes equipped with DJI’s proprietary OcuSync 2.0 transmission technology, which is an “integrated high-resolution video transmission solution” that can transmit HD video feed from the drone at a maximum distance of 10km. Live HD video is seen as imperative in making drone racing more viewer-friendly.
The Drone Racing League, which was created in 2015, has raised millions of dollars in funding since its inception, from investors including Hearst Ventures, CAA Ventures and Muse lead singer Matthew Bellamy. One of the companies biggest investments in the past came from Miami Dolphin’s owner Stephen Ross’s venture-capital firm RSE Ventures.
Want to get into drone racing yourself? Here’s my recommendation for getting started.