Rachel Jacobson, the new president of the Drone Racing League, recalls when the late-David Stern lay the NBA’s stakes in China in the 1990s. The league’s brand grew even taller than the 7-foot-6 Yao Ming could reach.
Jacobson, who spent 21 years at the NBA, sees DRL on the cusp of the same type of growth. “We have countries where people are so passionate about what we are doing,” she says.
It’s her job to drive the league, founded by Nicholas Horbaczewski five years ago, to new heights. Make no mistake about it, DRL’s new president has the experience and qualifications—and authentic Jersey accent—to do just that.
COVID-19 may cut down on face-to-face meetings and add child interruptions to sales calls, but Jacobson foresees drawing on lessons from Stern and current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in marketing and business development. And having left a start-up for this new job, Jacobson knows she is not starting on the ground floor.
“There are already unbelievable partnerships on the commercial side, as well as with the media,” she says. “We have a bright young demographic we are going to be focusing our marketing efforts on to ensure they know we are a real-life video game.”
The league’s first fantasy virtual drone racing series, the 2020 FanDuel DRL SIM Racing Cup, will premiere on Saturday, May 16 at 2:30 p.m. EST on NBCSN. The series will run for eight weekends on NBCSN and Twitter. All pilots have committed to donating their winnings to Direct Relief, the largest charitable provider of protective gear and medical essentials to health facilities in response to COVID-19.
DRL credits NBC, Twitter and Weibo collaborations for a nearly 200% increase in average viewership, 90% increase in virtual drone racing participation and 60% fan base growth across social media in the past year.
A Rising Star
Jacobson is looking to further engage audiences and build a base beyond its estimated 250 million global fans. DRL recently announced a new academy to develop pilots through a STEM program. The league is also taking advantage of a dearth of live sports programming to re-air its championship seasons. The feeling is once a viewer catches one race, he or she will be hooked.
Our pilots are very recognizable; the drones are visually stunning with a thousand lights; they go 0 to 90 in a second—we have all the key attributes,” says Jacobson.
DRL feels it has a star in Jacobson. Working with the best minds in sports, she closed nearly $1 billion in partnership sales. Most recently, Jacobson was the chief business development officer at Landit, a technology-based platform to increase the success and engagement of women and diverse groups in the workplace.
With this new position, Jacobson is almost a poster child for Landit’s mission. She has a rare position as a women president in the sports field, and, as such, will be an inspiration for many others.
“I was fortunate that very early on coming out of Cornell, I joined the NBA, where I found mentors who they knew that gender and ethnic diversity really would produce innovative minds,” she says.
As a working mother of twins, Jacobson notes she checks a lot of boxes. But her focus is on creating a higher trajectory for Drone Racing League.
That begins with an intimate connection with its fan base. “We're going to continue to innovate to bring fans closer to our sport than ever before—even during a pandemic—and eventually we will be able to host live sold-out drone racing events again in iconic locations around the world,” she says.
One location to watch for is Sydney, the home of drone racing and a destination Jacobson fell in love with during the 2000 Olympics. “The thought of bringing a drone race to the Sydney Harbour Bridge is my dream,” she admits.