Is Drone Racing a Sport? Mtn Dew Says Yes

Soda Brand Sponsors New Drone Racing League in Latest Alternative Sports Play

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Mtn Dew, which has a history of backing alternative sports like skateboarding, has struck what might be its most non-traditional deal yet. The soda brand will sponsor a new drone racing series as it puts the high-flying remote controlled devices at the center of a global ad campaign.

The sponsorship deal is with a new organization called DR1 Racing that plans to host events featuring some of the best drone pilots in the world. The first race will occur this summer at the Sepulveda Dam in Los Angeles and feature 12 drone-racing pilots as they "face down a gauntlet of environmental and man-made obstacles," according to a statement. The race will air in August on Discovery Channel and Science Channel. DR1 will also live stream races on Twitch, a site known for streaming video game competitions.

Mtn Dew representatives did not release financial terms of the sponsorship. A statement from the brand referred to the pact as the first branded partnership and national broadcast of drone racing.

Mtn Dew is also using drones in the next installment of its "Do the Dew" global marketing campaign. A TV spot (above) called "Drone Hunting," by BBDO, combines motocross, hunting and drone racing. The spot, which was filmed in the forests of Casablanca, Chile, was directed by Rupert Wyatt.

Dew will also sponsor drone-racing pilot Tommy "Ummagawd" Tibajia. That represents the first time a drone racer has signed a sponsorship deal with a brand, according to Mtn Dew.

"We are at our best when we get in early and we work with the Dew nation to influence things, create culture, help shape things. And that's exactly how we are thinking about drones," said Manos Spanos, global senior marketing director for Mountain Dew. "We are the first big brand to activate around drones and talk so aggressively around this."

But the drone racing industry -- which was virtually unheard of until recently -- is growing more crowded.

A competing league called the International Drone Racing Association (IDRA) in April announced a multi-year, international media distribution deal with ESPN. In August the association will stage the 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships on Governors Island, New York City that will be streamed live on ESPN3. The online network will also pick up the World Drone Racing Championships in October. ESPN is also planning to air two separate one-hour TV specials after each event on one of its TV networks.

Another drone racing organization, called the Drone Racing League, has the backing of investors including the owner of the Miami Dolphins, according to a report in January by Bloomberg. "We're creating a whole new form of entertainment that straddles the digital and the real," league founder Nick Horbaczewski stated in the Bloomberg report.

In drone racing, contestants pilot remote-controlled drones around a racecourse at speeds reaching 80 miles per hour. Cameras are mounted on the aircraft and the pilots wear goggles allowing them to see the video from the camera in real time.

Proponents of the sport envision it reaching the same heights as e-gaming, which refers to competitive video-game playing. The e-sports market drew $750 million in revenue last year, including from advertising and sponsorships, according to the Bloomberg report, which cited SuperData Research.

Big brands racing to e-gaming include Bud Light, which in late April announced a new program called the Bud Light All-Stars that will comprise a team of top e-sports players. The players will be featured on Twitch and in a behind-the scenes series on Machinima, which hosts gamer content.

Representatives of Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, did not disclose ad revenue, but said the site has lured ads from national brands including Old Spice, Totino's and Coke. The DR1 deal represents "the first time that we've really dove into real-life action sports," said Jimmy Whisenhunt, who manages partnerships for Twitch. He said there is crossover appeal for e-gaming viewers. "Really, it feels more like augmented reality video games when you watch it."

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