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Mountain Dew Embraces Drone Racing With Discovery Channel Event

After years of supporting live sporting contests organized by the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA, Madison Avenue is sniffing around the virtual kind.

With so-called “eSports”  – or video game competitions – gaining more popularity, PepsiCo’s Mountain Dew soda is preparing to embrace the nascent sport of drone racing. This August, the citrus-y drink will present a new “DR1 Invitational,” a one-hour drone-racing special slated to air on both Discovery Channel and Science Channel, two cable networks owned by Discovery Communications. As part of its plan to lure fans of the emerging pastime, the beverage is set to sponsor drone-racing pilot Tommy “Ummagawd” Tibajia.

“We wanted to get in early and make sure we put our stamp on it,” said Manos Spanos, senior director of global brand marketing for Mountain Dew, in an interview. “Drone racing is right at the intersection of technology and entertainment and forward thinking.” A new ad from Mountain Dew is launching that features a look at a would-be “sport” called “drone hunting” but plays off the fan base built around the new races.

The event will spotlight 12 of the world’s top drone-racing pilots as they vie for the title at Sepulveda Dam in Los Angeles this summer. Pilots will control drones from the top of the dam and each will maneuver a craft around a gauntlet of obstacles while the drones hit speeds of more than 80 miles per hour. The race will be broken up into various heats, qualifiers and finals over the course of two days.

In the not-too-distant past, TV sports were all about watching the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat while human beings pushed their actual bodies to the limit. Now, simulated feats of derring-do are generating more interest. Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting and WME/IMG recently formed a new eSports league that will have TBS broadcast 20 live events over the course of 2016. Walt Disney’s ESPN is expected to live-stream the 2016 U.S. National Drone Racing Championships from New York in early August, and tout the event on its cable networks.

Even virtual sports can generate thrills. “It started with people watching others just flying around a field. From there it’s been growing like crazy.” said Jimmy Whisenhunt, partnerships manager, media organizations at Twitch, the live-streaming video-gaming outlet that is owned by Amazon. DR1 will be the first series to stream live globally on Twitch, which is live-streaming content related to drone-racing contest and culture two nights a week. The first drone-racing event streamed on Twitch ran about 48 minutes, Whisenhunt estimated, and viewers stuck around for the duration.

Executives at Mountain Dew see an opportunity to communicate with young consumers between the ages of 16 and 25, said Spanos, as well as older millennials, and, perhaps, even a broader crowd. The fan base coalescing around drone racing  consists of “people who want to do things differently, people who want to instigate things and have a good time,” said Spanos. “”Drone racing, right now, is evolving. It’s changing. The rules around racing and drones are being drawn up as we speak and that’s where we want to fit – where things are still shaping up.”

Mountain Dew has long embraced extreme and action sports, whether they be the many instances of motocross and skateboarding found in its commercials over the years or its sponsorship of ESPN’s  X Games and the now-defunct Gravity Games that were owned via  partnership of Primedia, NBC Sports and the Octagon sports-marketing agency.

By the time the Discovery broadcasts are complete, the beverage’s backers will know whether simulated action is as attractive to consumers as the real thing.

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