Local organizers have been the backbone of the first-person-view (FPV) drone racing community since 2014. They have thrived as independent event organizers, sanctioned chapters, and regionally based leagues that built local series and qualifiers for larger organizations, entertainment shows, and international championships. Without local organizers, drone racing would be a brick building without the mortar to hold the walls together. Today, there is an erosion of that mortar.
It pains me to admit that there are dozens of highly competent event organizers and race managers, who have left the sport and don’t intend to participate in the 2019 season. According to such organizers, too many countless hours have been dedicated and too many thousands of dollars have been spent to organize races and provide opportunities for pilots to compete, improve skills, qualify for larger competitions, earn season points, win championships, promote personal brands, grow social media followings, attract sponsors, and secure new employment opportunities, while the organizers receive little to no assistance from sponsors and appreciation from the community. In my opinion, business is business, and no one is entitled to outside support; however, many organizers, who do it as hobby and not for business, share the above statements and are hurting from the lack of support from companies in the FPV market.
Fortunately, the sport and community continue to grow and attract new opportunities and entities interested in supporting world class events. The sport is alive and growing, but not at a consistent level that produces a significant benefit to the cost. For most, costs continue to outweigh the benefits.
As an organizer, all support is highly appreciated. Any effort to make the event and experience better for the competitors and spectators is awesome; however, products, discounts, prizes, flags, gates, etc. fall short to assist the organizer’s ability to cover event costs. Only money can pay the bills. Financial insecurity is a major vulnerability to the sport on the local level. It affects us larger organizers too, but bigger brands with larger operations have the flexibility to make up for short comings elsewhere by creating new opportunities or terminating some without bringing the entire company to a halt. Earlier this season, I had to make such a decision to cancel two of our largest races for the Drone Racing Series and shift more attention to growing the Challengers Cup, a more successful series with a larger international footprint, and the association by expanding our membership base and seeking new partnerships to provide additional services to IDRA members. Most organizers, who operate locally or regionally, do not share our luxury in flexibility and would be forced to pause or close shop indefinitely.
Although sponsors have, over the past two years, slowly decreased financial support to organizers and pilots, the blame doesn’t rest solely on them. In many ways, organizers and the community have contributed to the plateau and, in some areas, the decline of support for the sport. Attributed to poor strategy by several of the sport’s major organizations, the sport and hobby’s outreach to new pilots has always been week. In some communities, more pilots are leaving than those joining. Less members, especially paying members for local clubs and organizations, makes it more and more difficult to stay afloat, keep organizing races, and maintain equipment. If the beforementioned is true, then companies in the FPV market would also experience a stagnant growth to sales. The most effective way to grow revenue is to gain more customers, which is not occurring; thus, this results in smaller marketing budgets, which are exhausted by 3rd Quarter, and sponsorships allocated to races.
We, the organizing bodies of the sport, have an integral part in our sponsors’ failure to create new customers. No organization is exempt from this failure. Some organizers create events focused mainly on the competing pilots, rather than the spectator experience and community outreach. These events are difficult to find and are usually not listed or promoted on event or social media platforms. Others create entertainment shows for television and outside brands, rather than providing competitions open to the community and representing companies from the FPV market. Only a few pilots are invited; in consequence, the programs lose touch with the community. There are only a few organizations that recognize the need to build a spectator experience, but none, including us at IDRA, have done it proficiently. I can’t speak for the other organizations, but I can share some of the reasons why our strategy, although correct, hasn’t been fruitful yet.
To grow the international drone community, IDRA’s strategy has been to work with organizations, venues, and events to establish a spectator experience at IDRA organized or sanctioned drone races. In the past two seasons, we have been fortunate to enjoy over 200,000 spectators. Although an awesome accomplishment, we have yet to witness a major return. Yes, overall revenue has increased, engagement on the IDRA website and social media have increased, and association memberships have more than tripled; but, corporate sponsorships have plateaued. Sponsorships have always been a rollercoaster ride, but fundraising was easier three years ago than today. As stated before, most companies have decreasing marekting budgets and they are easily exhausted early in the season. Organizers are competing for a depleting resource.
While some companies value IDRA’s strategy and the need to engage new customers, they are often faced with the reality of a limited balance in the bank account. Other companies fail to see the need to reach out to new demographics and are stuck in a perpetual hole of marketing their products to the same pilot base every season. Pilots are familiar with those companies’ brands and products, for which marketing budgets would be better spent creating experiences, via their products, to introduce people to the hobby and sport. This is a reason why IDRA provides liability insurance to all recreational and commercial pilots, as IDRA members, because it creates a platform for us to showcase the sport and IDRA sponsors to other unmanned operators.
I hope you recognize the problem and foresee the it won’t be fixed without hard work, strong strategy, and productive collaboration. If small organizers are feeling the heat and leaving the sport, it’s only a matter of time before larger organizations succumb to the same stresses.
Luckily, there are several solutions that can help all organizers fight through these problems.
First, organizers need to engage more with the surrounding community. Organizing races is not enough to attract new pilots. There are many successful organizers who are deeply involved in outreach programs to schools and clubs, weekend training programs for novices and aspiring pilots, and small demonstrations at local events. Such efforts can help create a pipeline of new pilots to any healthy or struggling organization.
Second, involve local businesses, organizations, and schools in your drone races. Vendors don’t have to be FPV or RC related. As long as vendors add additional entertainment and experiences to the event, organizers will find it more effective to attract spectators and keep them engaged.
Third, seek partnerships with established events; conventions, festivals, and fairs are great opportunities to showcase the sport and your organization. The exposure will help organizers find support from local vendors and engage with a larger audience, which will help attract people to an organizer’s training program and become customers of involved sponsors.
Fourth, a professional media production, live or post, is great, but not necessary for this strategy. Invest more, time and money, in creating in-person experiences. The emotional effect, of an in-person experience, is long lasting and leads to a higher conversion of the individual becoming a fan, telling friends and family, joining a training program, and being a paying customer.
Lastly, the community needs to work together. There is a lot of division in the sport, like the division we see in society today. People and organizations refuse to work together to tackle a problem that many recognize; instead, let’s refuse to watch our sport plateau and crumble and help organizers, around the world, continue to support the growth of FPV Drone Racing and the international drone community. — Justin Haggerty, IDRA CEO & President