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With ESPN deal, drone racing gets serious

ESPN's partnership with the International Drone Racing Association will make a niche spectator sport available to millions of new viewers.

Meet the world's newest professional athletes: drone pilots.
International Drone Racing Association

Just a few years ago, drones were mostly used to fly over hostile territory and spy on it. More than occasionally, the remote-controlled aircraft would take out a target with laser-guided missiles.

Now, the unmanned aerial vehicles have a new purpose: entertainment.

ESPN, the network that brought us "SportsCenter" and the International Drone Racing Association, said Wednesday it had signed a multi-year deal to broadcast drone races. The contests, some of which will be shown from the perspective of the aircraft, will be streamed on ESPN 3, the sports network's dedicated online channel for live events.

ESPN is betting the dozens of drone leagues that have formed in recent years will be successful in angling for mainstream attention. Last month, the United Arab Emirates hosted what it called the inaugural World Drone Prix in Dubai, awarding a British teenager $250,000 for first place. Earlier this year, the Drone Racing League launched with the explicit aim of becoming the Formula One of the sport.

So far, drone events have captured attention on social media but not in mainstream media. The ESPN-IDRA deal marks the first time a drone league has struck a pact with a sports media giant that could bring the sport to new fans.

The first race ESPN viewers will get to watch is the US National Drone Racing Championships, from August 5 to 7. Held on Governors Island off New York City, the event "will crown the coveted title of fastest drone pilot in the United States," according to IDRA.

That event, as well as the World National Drone Championships in October, will be streamed live on ESPN3. For anyone who doesn't have the patience to watch three days of drone racing, ESPN says it'll air a one-hour condensed version of the event on its network.

Pilots control the small, multi-propeller aircraft using goggles that give them a first-person view from the drones. IDRA says viewers will get to watch the races on ESPN through those cameras, providing them the sensation of whipping through the aerial race track.

IDRA Chair Scot Refsland said the league is hoping the experience will hook fans.

"Drone racing gives anyone the ability to fly like a superhero," he said in a statement.