‘The Sky’s the Limit, Literally’: Why Drones Are the Future of Sports Broadcasts
About 2 in 3 sports fans said they are interested in watching a game broadcast that includes camera footage from a drone.
38% of sports fans and 30% of U.S. adults said they are familiar with the use of drones in sports within the past year.
77% of MLS fans showed interest in watching a broadcast with drone coverage, the most of any league’s fans.
In the cornfields of Dyersville, Iowa, the backdrop for last year’s MLB Field of Dreams game between the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox, an oversized object captured the August sun setting in the third inning.
It wasn’t the Goodyear Blimp, a helicopter or a plane. “That is a drone circling a hot air balloon over corn next to a big-league game in Iowa,” said play-by-play broadcaster Joe Buck.
The unplanned spectacle, made possible by a heavy-lift drone, complemented Fox’s use of a much smaller first-person-view device, which provided viewers a peek inside the home from the iconic 1989 film starring Kevin Costner, the inspiration for the event. Together, the drones created a baseball broadcast unlike anything that’s been put on TV before.
“That’s the magic of what these cinematographers and drone pilots give us,” said Brad Cheney, vice president of field operations and engineering at Fox Sports. “The ability to see things through their eyes that none of us would get to experience in person.”
After first testing aerial production drones in 2015, the network has since incorporated the technology into NASCAR, USFL and MLB broadcasts, among other sports properties. Fox will return to Iowa on Thursday night for the next Field of Dreams game between the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds. Beverly Hills Aerials, whose founder Michael Izquierdo recently piloted a first-person-view drone for a viral golf shot hit by Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, will have multiple drones in tow as they aim to capture the sights and sounds around the Lansing family farm.
T-Mobile US Inc., an MLB sponsor since 2013, will power live drone views of the Field of Dreams game, a year after the telecommunications giant and the Drone Racing League debuted their first 5G-enabled magenta racing drone at the event.
The combination of drones and baseball is a no-brainer for fans, said Amy Azzi, senior director of sports marketing and sponsorships at T-Mobile. “Put them all together, and you’ve got something pretty special,” she said. The appeal of drones has quickly taken over sports broadcasting. In addition to Fox, ESPN, CBS, major U.S. professional leagues and teams and other sports entities are finding more use cases for the technology, both during broadcasts and for online marketing. Improved technology (including enhanced safety features and extended battery life), more-skilled pilots and, most importantly, a willingness from executives to adopt a new approach have elevated drones’ rising popularity across the sports industry in recent years, according to executives and industry professionals.
ESPN received praise in 2020 for its live-drone usage, which was called upon to review plays during the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando. In February 2021, the NHL and NBC Sports captured live broadcast shots around a regular season outdoor game in Lake Tahoe. More recently, the NFL executed multiple 10-minute drone performances in Los Angeles ahead of Super Bowl LVI in February, while CBS aired 30- to 60-second drone-captured snippets of Augusta National’s clubhouse during April’s Masters. In June, the NBA showcased a 500-drone light show over New York City’s Hudson River to market the NBA draft in Brooklyn, N.Y.
A recent Morning Consult survey found that fans have a large appetite for the technology: About 2 in 3 sports fans (67%) said they are either “very interested” or “somewhat interested” in watching a game broadcast that includes camera footage from a drone.