A Legendary Racing Family Is Trying to Revolutionize Sports, Will It Work?

Thanks to a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign, Project Brabham's innovative, open system could revolutionize how fans follow their teams.

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Jan 23 2015, 3:45pm

Photo courtesy Project Brabham

Consider for a moment what you want as a sports fan. Why do you spend so much time on ESPN.com clicking refresh? Why do you follow all those insiders on Twitter? It's because you want access, right? And the information you want access to is scarce.

So, what if your favorite team sold that access straight to you? No more middlemen, just you and the team. How much would you pay for knowing every cent went toward helping your team win?

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That's the question at the heart of Project Brabham, a race car team that late last year raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in what was then the largest motorsports-based crowdfunding campaign ever. The perks the team promised in return for funding weren't stickers or t-shirts, they were all about access to information.

Project Brabham is the brainchild of David Brabham. If you know car racing, you're probably familiar with the name. David's late father, Sir Jack Brabham, was a three-time Formula One champion who turned his Brabham team into a powerhouse. In its day, it was comparable in many ways to Ferrari and McLaren. The team went through various iterations and ownership groups before falling on hard times in the 1990s.

David Brabham with the strong Euro-movie star vibes. Photo courtesy Project Brabham

David had a successful career of his own behind the wheel, racing in Formula One and the World Endurance Championship, among others. His most recent victory, however, was in a German court, where he won a protracted legal battle over the rights to the family name. Now he plans on returning the Brabham team to glory.

"The underlying intention was always to bring Brabham back as a race team," says David. "Now, part of the thing that was kinda holding me back on that was that I've been in racing a long time, I know how difficult it is for race teams to survive the way teams go racing. I just felt, there must be another way of doing it."

When he looked around at what was happening in the motorsports world, he perceived a lack of sustainability. This crisis of sustainability was confirmed when, at the end of last year's Formula One season, two teams, Marussia and Caterham, ran out of money and went into administration. (Caterham went on to finish the season thanks to a crowdfunding campaign that surpassed Brabham's then-record-holding campaign.)

"Formula One has been run very successfully for a very long time under the model of, you know, 'We're the gladiators. You're not. You're distant from Formula 1. You crave to be'—that type of attitude," Brabham says. "You're jammed up against fences to see one glimpse of a Formula One driver. I think that model has worked so well for so long, but I think that's changing. I think the fans are saying, well, what's the point?"

Brabham did some market research, looking at what the Brabham name meant to racing fans and found that, despite its decades out of racing, it was still heavily associated with innovation, engineering, and a pioneering sensibility in motorsports. The question was how does an upstart team with little in the way of financial muscle but a great deal of brand recognition really innovate? That's when he had the eureka moment: "What if we had a race team and we opened up the doors of the race team to the fans, to see everything that goes on, to be part of the team, contribute to the team, learn the environment throughout the whole team, from drivers to engineers?"

Photo courtesy Project Brabham

Brabham calls it "open source racing." How open source the racing actually will be remains to be seen. The team has not yet taken to the track. It plans to begin competing at some point during this season's World Endurance Championship. (The WEC begins in April.) And Brabham freely admits that the exact nature of the access will be decided by owners after a planned round of funding and a sale of equity. But the plan, as it stands right now, is to give fans various degrees of behind-the-scenes access for a modest subscription fee, currently between £25 and £100 per season.

Subscribers will be able to observe things like maintenance, driver training, and strategy discussions. They'll be able to vote on some team decisions and perhaps even offer more in-depth feedback to members of the Brabham team. "We as a team, we will be as transparent as we can," Brabham says. "So in terms of the fans, they'll see behind the scenes radio communication. We'll be in the trucks having meetings, you know, and there'll be like a video link. There's a lot more that you'll see in that environment than you'll see in any other race team environment."

It's still early, but the concept appears to be a hit with fans. Project Brabham has sold subscriptions to more than 3,000 people from 64 countries (in addition to larger donations) as part of its crowdfunding campaign, raising £278,057.

Crowdfunding isn't new to sports, but it's becoming increasingly important. It's already a key source of funding for many Olympic athletes, and, in motorsports, campaigns have funded drivers and provided seed money for other upstart teams. For those upstarts, crowdfunding doesn't just provide a one-time source of income. It also gives teams like Brabham a slight but important competitive advantage they wouldn't get if they'd gone with private funding first.

"Normally when a race team starts, it goes three or four or five years down the road before it's really successful," explains Brabham. "You've spent a lot of money to get to that point, and only then are you really starting to attract a fan base. Doing it the crowdfunding way, and the way we've done it, you know, we've already started to engage a community of followers."

Photo courtesy Project Brabham

David Brabham acknowledged that Brabham name recognition was a major part of the campaign's success. One funder put in touch with VICE Sports through Project Brabham, Warren Nel, a 43-year-old British telecommunications worker, confirmed as much, saying he was particularly attracted to the idea of helping rebuild the Brabham team, which he remembers fondly from the 90s. "I'm quite a passionate motorsports fan, and I've got a diploma in motor vehicle engineering," he continued. "So I understand cars, I know how they work, all the parts, how everything works together. And [the appeal] was just to be involved a little bit more, really, with respect of the background of a team. Involved in motor racing, really. That's what attracted me."

The subscription model is really where the "sustainability" comes in. With a known quantity of subscribers, the Brabham team will operate with a stable revenue source—money it can count on—something the racing world isn't exactly known for. "We'll have a growing community of followers who are very engaged in what we are doing," Brabham says. "We might have 3,000 now. But what if we had 300,000 in three years time?"

There are other teams in the sports world working to develop revenue streams based on subscriptions—projects like Chelsea Fan Club Plus come to mind—and teams have long had their own magazines and newsletters, but those models aren't even close to "open source." They're all player bios and practice footage. They don't let fans feel like they're involved. This is what makes Project Brabham so interesting. It's a proof of concept for a business model that, so far, teams have been reluctant to try or unable to pull off: monetizing the information that their hardcore fan bases crave.

Generally, professional sports teams of all stripes are rivaled in opacity only by spy agencies. They guard their secrets for the sake of competitive advantage, staying as closed off as they can. Fans, of course, want that information. Usually they get it from sports journalists, who have a measure of access and the publishing or broadcasting apparatus necessary to share that information with the world.

This has started to change. Ten years ago it didn't matter if some freshman college student got inside info on the New York Jets through, say, her older brother who was best buds with the Jets' equipment manager. Today, if that kid has Twitter and a smartphone, she's suddenly scooping the insiders, and those well-connected journalists lose a bit of their value. Because everybody has a platform, the information monopoly has been broken.

The Brabham model, if successful, could further shift how fans get their insider information. It's enough to make a beat writer go white in the face. From the fan's perspective, however, unprecedented access to team information and not having to go through a third party sounds pretty great. It could even become a kind of educational tool, which is what Brabham envisions, creating a more knowledgeable, perhaps even helpful, fanbase.

The question teams will have to ask themselves is, how much is secrecy worth? What is the price of that competitive advantage?

In Project Brabham's case, the competitive advantage is perhaps not as valuable now as it might be in the future. The team has an eye on one day joining Formula One, a racing category where innovating, and guarding those innovative secrets, is how you win. But, for Brabham, that's all in the distant future. This year, the team will enter racing in the LMP 2 category, where it will buy a car rather than build one. The team plans to become a constructor again in about four years.

For other teams, in motorsports and elsewhere, the calculus will look different. But if there's one truth in all sports, it's this: new revenue streams are always enviable. Expect the sports world to pay close attention.

Project Brabham's model just might be the next step in how the information age continues to change how we consume information and how we follow our favorite teams. Are the days of the insider numbered? We'll have to wait and see. But if Brabham succeeds, teams won't have just one or two insiders, there could have 300,000.