Earlier this year, Fast Company named the Drone Racing League as one of the world’s most innovative companies and ranked DRL as this year’s third-most innovative sports company—a sizable feat for a startup that only launched 14 months ago.
With such a high ceiling, brands are now looking to leverage the DRL to reimagine what racing in the 21st century can look like. Insurance company Allianz jumped at the opportunity last month to snag the rights of title sponsor with a five-year, global partnership for DRL’s race circuit reportedly worth more than $10 million.
Allianz, a German global company that has motor racing heritage with sponsorships with such organizations as Formula 1 and business roots with drones, will look to build and market the emerging eSports vertical through a title sponsorship of the six-race circuit.
Billed as the “Allianz World Championship,” DRL will host races at Allianz-branded venues in Miami, New Orleans, Atlanta, Boston, Munich and London. In June, 12 hour-long episodes covering the winner-take-all competition will begin airing on ESPN, Sky, ProSieben and other premier broadcast channels in more than 75 countries.
The announcement is just the latest in a series of moves that has validated DRL’s growing eSports popularity. In November, DRL signed a sponsorship with Bud Lite for a simulator program to find pilots, and in December, they inked a deal with Toy State for co-branded toy drones. Now they have the backing of Allianz, which ranks No. 51 as the worlds’ most valuable brands, according to Interbrand.
Jean-Marc Pailhol, global head of market management and distribution for Allianz, and Nicholas Horbaczewski, founder and CEO of the Drone Racing League and a Crain’s 40 under 40 honoree, joined [a]listdaily for a joint interview to discuss their groundbreaking partnership.
What kind of validation are sponsors and TV deals bringing to DRL? What kind of shift in perception have you experienced over the last 12 months?
Nicholas: We’re thrilled to have experienced an unprecedented amount of growth over this past year, solidifying first-person-view racing as a mainstream sport. And, thanks to our partnership with Allianz, DRL is officially on the fast track. To DRL, Allianz is bringing world-renowned brand credibility and a proud history of innovative sports partnerships, including an extensive tradition in auto racing, and an undeniable proof point that the sport of the future has arrived. The scale and long-term nature of the deal shows Allianz’s genuine commitment to advancing the sport and will accelerate the introduction of drone racing to audiences around the world.
Why was Allianz interested in bringing brand credibility to the sport of drone racing by partnering with DRL?
Jean-Marc: The pursuit of innovation and calculated risk taking are the reasons insurance was invented in the first place. Allianz is proud to be partnering with DRL, a true pioneer of digital-driven sports. Allianz has a strong history of partnering with those who are taking the next step and creating innovative sports and entertainment. In addition, drones are already an important part of Allianz’ business. Our specialty aviation insurer, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, offers a variety of drone insurance products for commercial operators, manufacturers, distributors, repairers, flight schools, training facilities and drone service consumers. A partnership with DRL will allow Allianz to connect with consumers of the fast-growing drone industry.
What kind of marketing will we see with the Allianz World Championship series? What’s your game plan?
Jean-Marc: DRL pilots are already flying their racing drones at Allianz internal events, and we will look for opportunities to do so for public-facing initiatives, too. The important part is how DRL and these ambassadors can influence the grassroots movement of drone racing and growth in this larger ecosystem of digital sports. The ambassador stories must bring to life the rapid technology innovations that are happening and help to make that message relatable to fans around the world. In the past, Allianz has done this with FC Bayern, FC Barcelona, MoMA and more. For example, our MoMA partnership centered around making our brand message better understood by working with top Instagrammers to create inspirational social content that resonates with the Instagram community. We’re excited to engage DRL’s global fan base through our partnership. As the title sponsor of the race circuit, Allianz will have the lockup logo displayed on the uniforms of DRL pilots, on the starting podiums and throughout the intricate, 3D courses during the six professional DRL races in the 2017 season. Furthermore, as part of the Allianz World Championship, Allianz will host DRL races each year at official Allianz venues, including Allianz-branded stadiums and corporate facilities.
What has been the biggest challenge in marketing drone racing? What are consumers having a hard time understanding?
Nicholas: The biggest challenge hasn’t been educating consumers on drone racing, but rather living up to our sky-high expectations on what it can be. We’ve spent decades imagining what futuristic sports would look like based on video games, movies and sci-fi fantasies over the past 40 years; there is no new sport with higher expectations than drone racing, which fans immediately connect to Star Wars pod racing and the Tron light cycle—ideas based entirely on computer graphics nearly impossible to recreate in real life. To win over the hearts and minds of the modern viewer and deliver against the set of massive hype, we’ve spent the past year engineering new technology, innovating media production to capture drones racing at 80 miles per hour, and curating visually stunning racing experiences in complex, 3D venues.
Will you look to maximize on your drone racing marketing by naturally heading into traditional eSports, too?
Jean-Marc: When it comes to the new digital sports ecosystem, drone racing was a very natural first move for us. It’s an emerging sport that takes place in the physical world and is influenced by digital at the same time. Awareness levels are growing rapidly around the world thanks to DRL’s extensive broadcast coverage in over 75 countries and, at the same time, drones are already an important part of Allianz’ business. DRL is the leader in creating this new sport of drone racing and making it accessible to the world. And what really won us over was DRL’s openness to Allianz being a true partner and not just a sponsor. We are now looking together how we can use our Allianz assets like the six Allianz named stadiums or our 86 million clients in over 70 countries, our expertise and our global network to make the DRL Allianz World Championship one of the most attractive competitions in the world.
What are some other marketing avenues brands have not tapped into yet?
Nicholas: Partnership opportunities with DRL are endless. From DRL pilot apparel lines to sponsored first-person-view video content and co-branded digital promotions, we’re excited to customize authentic experiences with brands that want to reach and engage millennial men, tech addicts and millions of DRL fans across the world.
Why should sponsors be flocking to enter the drones space? What kind of value are you envisioning?
Jean-Marc: Drone racing is growing at a tremendous pace and we strongly believe that DRL—with their strong broadcast reach—has the most potential to engage fans around the world and expose them to one of the most exciting racing experiences out there.
What needs to happen for drone racing to evolve from its underground roots to truly become a global sport?
Nicholas: It’s already happening. The DRL launched in January 2016 as the only global professional drone racing organization, hosting five professional races in its inaugural season. DRL’s first season reached millions of fans around the world, including more than 30 million broadcast viewers and more than 43 million views of its digital content. This year, we’re expanding our broadcast reach to air DRL in 75 countries across the world and we’ll host races internationally for the first time—bringing the thrill to the Alexandra Palace in London, and a soon-to-be-announced iconic venue in Munich.
How will you further build on your momentum and re-up on your strategy to reach a more mainstream audience?
Nicholas: We’re excited that our title partnership with Allianz will help DRL to continue to reach new viewers and build an even larger global fan base as we introduce new events, and media and brand partners in our 2017 season.
Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan