The owner of the Miami Dolphins just made drone racing a million-dollar sport

Sport of the future?
Sport of the future?
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy
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Drone racing might be getting ready for prime time. Real estate developer and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has invested $1 million into the Drone Racing League (DRL), a New York startup looking to bring live drone racing to the public, the Wall Street Journal (paywall) reported today.

The league hopes to recreate successes that other fast-twitch sports have had in recent years. The X-Games is now a biannual competition broadcast live on ESPN in the US, and e-sports—which drone racing has been compared to—are now watched by over 89 million people across the world. The DRL held a test event earlier this year in an abandoned power plant in Yonkers, and plans to have its first public race later this year, according to the Journal.

“I felt [drone racing] could be a sport that resonated with people because it touches on the heritage of racing, but also brings in the benefits of new technology,” Nick Horbaczewski, one of the founders of the DRL and the former revenue officer at the running-through-seemingly-dangerous-obstacles-race company Tough Mudder, told the Journal.

First-person-view (FPV) drone racing, where racers build small custom-made drones and fly them, seeing through a camera relaying a live feed back to video goggles, is a kind of perfect storm of sports. It’s got speed (drones can travel upwards of 70 mph), it’s got crashes, and it’s got the video feeds live from the drones itself, combining aspects of NASCAR, Formula 1, and virtual-reality gaming into a sport. But what the sport has struggled with so far is turning the excitement of flying into something spectators would want to watch. The drones themselves, only about 10 inches wide, can be hard to spot at high speeds, and current technology only allows the drones to effectively broadcast standard-definition video speeds back to the pilot.

The DRL team isn’t the only one trying to get drone racing off the ground. Last month, the first US drone racing championship look place in a dusty field in Sacramento. The event, held as part of the California State Fair, only garnered a few hundred fans, but organizer Scot Refsland has already announced an international competition to be held in September 2016, with a purse of $100,000.

Ross’ investment firm, RSE Ventures, did not immediately respond to a question about what it is receiving in return for its $1 million investment.

RSE also owns FanVision—a technology that allows NASCAR fans in the stands to follow along with the race on a small screen, instead of constantly having to try to catch the cars as they zip by. In addition, RSE runs the International Champions Cup—a yearly soccer tournament that’s drawn crowds to watch teams like Chelsea, Barcelona, and Manchester United, in countries outside of soccer’s traditional home territories.

While $1 million may be a tiny investment compared to the billions in revenue US sports leagues like the MLB and NFL generate, it might prove to be the catalyst the sport needs to hit the mainstream. FanVision and Ross’ knack for knowing how to draw crowds may well be the lift the DRL needs as it prepares for its first race later this year.