Sarconi: Drone racing likely won’t take off on television

Once known exclusively as a killing device for the military, drones are seemingly everywhere. From the national explosion of drone sales this past Christmas to local issues, such as Syracuse University’s ban on the device, there is no denying the proliferation of drones into the public.

Starting in August, drones will not only be in the air, but also on television. ESPN has announced a multi-year deal with the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA) to broadcast the United States National Drone Racing Championships online as well as a one-hour wrap-up show on television.

Given the industry’s upward trend, drone racing has the potential to become popular. However, I don’t see it entering the mainstream sports scene. It’s simply not that fun to watch and perhaps more importantly, it lacks the intangible human element that allows sports fans to connect with an athlete or team.

One main problem with watching drone racing is that right now, the point-of-view camera is too herky-jerky. Sure, you can see the action from a cool angle, but that’s not worth the confusion it causes. On top of feeling lost, some of the camera’s movements can be nauseating. Improvement in frame-rate technology would help this, but ESPN is going to broadcast drone racing in less than 5 months and it’s not a good sign that I felt queasy watching it now.

I can’t speak to how it is to view the sport in person, but I can’t imagine it being all that riveting. In the videos I’ve seen, the playing field — if you could even call it that — is essentially a path that goes through a stadium or an obstacle course. Even though it’s built this way so the drone pilot has to skillfully control their device, it’s super hard to keep track of that white blur flying through the sky.

I mean really, how is someone supposed to watch this? When the drone disappears into a tunnel for a few seconds and comes back out, the viewer will have no idea what happened in that time. They don’t know whether the drone had to fit through a tight space, avoid a moving obstacle or simply fly through the tunnel.

It’s kind of a no-brainer that the racetrack should be visible at all times. Nobody wants to pay to watch an event where they can only see part of the action.

Ultimately, though, drone racing’s biggest issue is that it’s hard connect with a machine. Yes, humans are piloting these devices, but that doesn’t come across when you watch it. Sports are supposed to be about people overcoming mental or physical challenges, but drone racing is just people telling machines to avoid physical obstacles. Undoubtedly, there is a mental component to it, but it’s not enough.

One could argue this point is bull because NASCAR is similar in nature, but the drivers are actually in the cars. They are on the playing field, going through the physical rigors of driving a car for hours on end while playing a game of mental chess with their competitors. The drone pilots are in a separate room, likely air-conditioned and comfortable, flying object with a game controller. There are no stakes. If the drone crashes, they aren’t physically hurt in any way.

Obviously, some people do consider drone racing an enjoyable viewing experience: the IDRA’s YouTube video announcing the 2016 championships got more than 62,500 views and the Drone Racing League’s YouTube page has about 52,000 subscribers, as of Wednesday night. Clearly, there is already some traction with the sport.

I might be missing something, but I can’t envision a future in which kids have a poster of their favorite drone or pilot on their wall. I just don’t see how people can passionately root for drone racing.

To be fair, I did just write about how esports could become the next NFL and what those gamers have to do really isn’t all that different than drone pilots. But — and this is a big — esports has the added component of teamwork. With esports, a group of people have to work together to overcome the objectives in front of them. This dynamic creates a tension drone racing doesn’t have.

Whether or not the sport attracts a large following will ultimately be determined by how popular drones get. If sales continue to rise and at a certain point everyone and their uncle has a drone, then there’s a real potential for it to grow out its niche fanbase.

Kyle Foley, CEO of Skyworks, said drone racing has a certain quality that sets it apart from most major sports.

“Literally, anybody can do it,” Foley said. “So, if you can twiddle your thumbs fast enough, you have a shot. All you need to do is buy a $500 drone and you can literally be No. 1.”

I call that the every-person argument and it’s powerful. If anyone can do it relatively easily, the more popular it becomes.

Despite this, what it really comes down to is that for the foreseeable future, just because ESPN signed a deal with the IDRA doesn’t mean it will automatically become a mainstream sport.

Paul Sarconi is a senior broadcast and digital journalism major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @paulsarconi.


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