Nicholas Horbaczewski Is Reinventing Racing

The Drone Racing League founder is just getting started.

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Sarah Jacobs/ONE37PM

Building a sports league ain't what it used to be. When the four major American sports began during the first half of the 20th century, most organizations focused on fielding the best possible product and then getting butts into the seats to watch it. Television advertising wasn't a thing yet, not to mention widespread access to sports broadcasts. 

In 2019, an elite product—as well as an accessible, visually exciting viewing experience—is mandatory. Everything else is fluid and constantly changing, whether it's the way the audience consumes the sport or how they engage with it. In order to stay in front of their competition, the Drone Racing League has to explore every possible revenue stream. The currents of social media and digital technology demand that a league like DRL be a fluid enterprise, ever-changing, a full-time pivot. 

DRL founder and CEO Nicholas Horbaczewski compares his sport's on-the-fly improvements to patches in a video game. "What's fun about building a pro league from scratch is that we constantly evolve what we're doing," Horbaczewski said from his office in Flatiron, the central hub of the NYC tech scene. "So every year there's a new drone. Every year we change the rules a little bit, and we see this continuing to evolve in the same way you would expect any video game to evolve."

In December, I spoke with Horbaczewski at DRL's Flatiron headquarters, where we talked about his vision for DRL's future and the modern challenges of popularizing a new sport.

As of this moment, what are DRL's goals for 2019?

We're focusing on two things right now. One is to continue to expand the league geographically. There are a lot of exciting markets we want to bring drone racing to, especially places like China, where there is a lot of interest in the sport but we haven't brought a pro race there yet. So we will be announcing a lot of exciting things in China next year.

We're also going to have an AI race series call AIRR—Artificial Intelligence Robotic Racing. It's pretty exciting because you'll actually have AIs flying racing drones through the same courses as human pilots. We'll see how autonomous flying artificial intelligence compares with human performance right now. We're inviting programmers from around the world to design the AIs for these autonomous drones. It will be a real competition format that promotes incredible advancements in autonomy and AI.

So much is changing with how people watch and engage with sports. What do you predict will happen in the near future?

There's this huge question of relevance for people. When you think about a sport and when you think about the fact that lots of people out there are fans of the sport, you have to ask yourself the question, "Why? What about it makes it something they want to invest their time in? Why are they so vested in the local sports team in some way?". 

People engage every day now with technology. If you go back 15 years, 20 years, the idea of a smartphone launch being a major cultural event, that people tune in to watch the live almost seems kind of silly.

You think about what CES was 25 years ago versus now, and I think that reflects the fact that people are really interested in technology. They're really interested in the advancements it's making, and they are interested in entrepreneurship. They're interested in all those things wrapped together. . I think that when they think about their inclination to be a fan, their inclination to follow sports, they want something in line with those interests. If you follow all tech CEOs online and then suddenly you say "I'm going to watch people throw a football around," it isn't as connected to the rest of your life.

Never let people’s skepticism about a really ‘out there’ idea set you back.

- Nicholas Horbaczewski

Who should young entrepreneurs be paying attention to?

One person that I follow, he's one of our investors, he's Matt Higgins at RSE. So I think RSE's doing really some innovative stuff across investing.

Another person who's a mentor of mine, an incredible guy who I like to follow, is Strauss Zelnick. He's the CEO of Take-Two, which makes the Grand Theft Auto video games. I think they have had unbelievable success.

Something I want to say to young entrepreneurs: When I started here, there was a lot of skepticism from people who said "Yeah, you're trying to make Star Wars real. That's far-fetched." Now that we've done it and there are thousands of people showing up for events, it's really exciting. Never let people's skepticism about a really "out there" idea set you back. 

Right now, there's a huge space for entrepreneurship in sports and entertainment. So I'd encourage you to take a look at the space. 

This piece is part of our monthlong series featuring the 30 Most Entrepreneurial Athletes. For other entries in the series, head to our 30MEA page.

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