Now he is looking to make a name for himself in a new niche: drone racing.
RSE Ventures, a venture-capital firm co-founded by Mr. Ross, is providing $1 million to the first round of funding for the Drone Racing League, a New York startup that is planning its first public race later this year. The League intends to make money through sponsorships, media and ticket sales.
Over the years numerous spectator sports have enjoyed splashy debuts and harbored hopes of becoming mainstream, from roller derby to arena football. After the initial buzz faded, interest in the sports often has petered out.
The Drone Racing League is targeting a growing audience: videogame players and other technology-oriented types. The venture hopes to re-create the success of live videogame competitions, which lately have been packing arenas like Madison Square Garden.
Hobbyists have experimented with racing drones since the machines started to be commercially available two years ago. Lately the races have become more practical as drones have declined in price and increased in speed.
Hobbyists typically race the so-called “250 Class” of drones, which cost $300 to $500 and can hit speeds of 70 miles an hour, and racers through the Drone Racing League will pilot similar drones. The machines are nimble enough to navigate the old factories and other interior spaces in which the Drone Racing League is planning its races.
There are typically five to seven participants per race. Racers wear virtual-reality goggles that make it feel as if they are in the “cockpit” of the drone, which translates to video content.
“It’s a completely immersive experience that’ll make you feel like you’re flying,” said Drone Racing League founder Nick Horbaczewski.
Mr. Ross might seem an unusual trailblazer in this arena. The 75-year-old developer is best known for projects like Time Warner Center and Hudson Yards in New York and mixed-use projects in Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas, Chicago and other cities. But Mr. Ross also has a passion for sports. He has owned a stake in the Miami Dolphins since 2008, and today owns 95% of the franchise and Sun Life Stadium.
In 2012, Mr. Ross and Matt Higgins founded RSE Ventures, which stands for Ross Sports and Entertainment.
“I saw the opportunity to construct a platform of companies that could create new opportunities and dynamic experiences across sports, entertainment and technology,” Mr. Ross said in a written statement.
RSE also operates the International Champions Cup, a yearly soccer competition featuring big-name teams from around the world, and developed FanVision Puck, a mobile technology available at sporting events. As for investments, the company backs more than 90 early-stage companies, according to Mr. Higgins.
Mr. Horbaczewski started the Drone Racing League after working as chief revenue officer at Tough Mudder, an obstacle race held in locations around the world.
“I felt [drone racing] could be a sport that resonated with people because it touches on the heritage of racing, but also brings in the benefits of new technology,” he said.
The Drone Racing League isn’t the only organization hosting races. This summer, a two-day competition called the U.S. National Drone Racing Championships took place at Bonney Field, an outdoor sports venue in Sacramento.
More than 120 pilots participated, but “public turnout was less than spectacular,” said racing director Scot Refsland, who felt that hot temperatures deterred spectators.
Mr. Refsland said the sport might need to make some changes to become more fan friendly. “It’s not exciting to watch gnats fly in a football field all day,” he said. He believes the sport will become more appealing if spectators can view the images racers see through their virtual reality goggles.
Mr. Higgins acknowledged that RSE’s investment in the Drone Racing League is a risky one. “Our first threshold to cross is to persuade the world that this has potential to be a sport,” he said.
By EMILY NONKO