A unique content incubator within Bleacher Report that spun out multiple department level verticals
The biggest challenge with the Media lab was balancing our ambitions with the content realities and budget goals for Bleacher Report. As an incubator within the company we had the freedom to pitch crazy ideas, but taking them from concepts to reality was at the crux of what made this team special. The experiments that we took from concept to experiences that our audience could interact with would eventually become the backbone of multiple departments as the company grew over time. Whether developing the early aspects of our animation win, or developing a playbook for our original social content, building interactive and immersive web projects, or elevating our best long form editorial content the scope of the Media Lab allowed me to contribute in a myriad of ways and develop a multi-faceted tool belt of diverse skills that served me well as I grew as a designer, a project manager, developer, art curator, editor and as a visual art director as well.
The Bleacher Report Media Lab was launched as an incubator within the larger context of the company as a place for fresh ideas and new executions. Having built a solid audience over it's early years as a news aggregator, the Media Lab was considered the place where the future of the company would be forged. I was brought in as a designer, producer, and art director who would lead projects and develop new ideas and concepts under the nimble team featuring a talented project manager, two brilliant animators, and a forward thinking director of emerging media.
We tackled new ideas and found a way to bring them into the content pipeline for the company. When I was working on a logo design for the lab, and one of the fun elements that spoke to this ethos was the animation element added to it. We wanted our audience to feel like content from The Lab was truly differentiated and fun. The electric green color I chose for the logo set it apart from the grey and orange color palette associated with the brand. Interestingly enough, this green would eventually become the main brand color for the entire company when we refreshed our logo in the spring of 2017. This is a perfect example of what "The Lab" was to Bleacher Report, it acted as a startup within a startup where we would try new things and risky ideas that were aimed at testing audience sentiment rather than gunning for engagement.
From longer term projects that were the first of it's kind, to an experimental quick form initiative known as "Media Lab Daily" which would eventually grow to become our Social Moments Department, I had fingerprints on a myriad of projects during my time in the Lab. As can be seen in the sizzle reel below for some of the early work the Media Lab did, it was a place where I was given the opportunity to develop some very refreshing new content executions around some of the most exciting moments in sports. These executions would go on to become the basis for much of the future departments and content recipes that Bleacher Report would implement in future years to become the digital sports media powerhouse it has now become in this day and age.
As can be seen in the sizzle reel I put together below, the Lab really did a myriad of experiments in different areas in order to really fine tune a strategy to move forward with. From animations like Game of Zones or Let it Tank, to data visualizations such as our Athlete Endorsements website I developed, to quick turn social graphics, motion graphics videos, and more I really tried to push the envelop as far as sports storytelling on digital platforms goes as a member of the Media Lab.
Initial explorations that I was a part of were around the initiative of taking what Bleacher Report was good at, reporting news in a fast manner, and working with the newly hired roster of high level prominent journalists it had hired to up it's editorial game to produce longform parallax websites. This process involved the design and look and feel of the story, working on image treatments and layouts that would be engaging for our audience. Working with our engineering team, I helped develop our first one off parallax experiences such as NFL Megadeals, The Rise of T-Mac,or Finding Lamar Odom for example. In a yearly review of my early contributions to the team, our head of the Lab Bennett Spector said the following about my impacto n the squad and what I brought to the table for projects like these:
My role in these projects was to take the written words we were given by our journalists and to package them in a visually appeasing way. This meant developing infographics or illustrations and designs that would act as the full bleed high resolution parallax imagery for these articles that would draw in our audience. It also meant working to develop HTML and CSS solutions to properly present this content so that it would work as an immersive desktop experience but also load quickly enough for a robust mobile experience as well. I would function as a designer, art director, video editor, creative director, sound designer, motion graphics designer, programmer, developer, and so much more during this time on the team and I built a ton of interactive and engaging content experiences on the web for Bleacher Report that I am extremely proud of.
These articles were meant to stand out on the site and draw users in for a deeper experience. From a design standpoint, I began by wireframing and sketching out an overall layout for the sites, and then proceeding to mock up the layout in sketch and photoshop acting as a bridge between the design and development teams. Once we had developed an initial look and feel with the engineering team, I was able to take the reigns from there for future projects and coded and designed them fully, similar to our James Harden Watch the Throne feature. These articles saw an increase in time spent on our website and gave us a high end vehicle to deliver quality storytelling to our audience.
This would later be developed into our BR Mag department and a content CMS for articles written by our top tier journalists. This time period was really defined by a combination of focusing on art direction and digital graphic design alongside a heavy dose of development and looking at coding solutions to visually convey our editorial perspectives. I sat at the crossroads of the developing and art direction world and took these projects from a simple google doc that was provided to us by our writers and brought them to life over the course of a scrum. This content sprint laid the foundation for this massive undertaking and would allow us to turn around some amazing features.
One of the biggest initiatives that we launched during my time on the Media Lab was "MJ All Day" which was a year long project developed as an immersive digital celebration of the greatest to ever step foot on the court. Featuring an array of historical imagery that I helped curate and art direct and design along with multimedia elements such as animations and typography highlighting some of his greatest moments. Winner of the 2015 Gold CLIO award, this one of a kind tribute to MJ was released as a branded content project in collaboration with Gatorade to celebrate his 50th Birthday and the relaunch of the iconic "Be Like Mike" campaign. The one of a kind career tribute to the GOAT we created was featured on sites and publishers such as Complex, NiceKicks, SoleCollector, and GQ.
It was exactly the type of project that brought together the most unique aspects of what Bleacher Report was doing on social with our editorial voice. One of my favorite parts that I got to help produce and art direct was a collaboration with Ryan Fuller in our Animated History of Air Jordan's video. I also had the chance to build the web experience from he ground up with the help of Gregory Wild Smith and art directed the design of the whole immersive parallax experience. Furthermore, I had a chance to play the role of content strategist while developing the storytelling backbone of the site as to effectively transport our users through Jordan's career in a compelling way.
Once we had a chance to develop more of these in depth longform editorial experiences one of the main points of focus that I wanted to pivot to was more social focused immersive visual experiences that would draw our sizable audience on those platforms to a rich media landing page filled with shareable content. The first of these experiments was around NBA x NFL Jersey Mashups which received widespread coverage as well as a great reaction on social networks such as reddit. We even had a fan who loved the content so much they created one of the Hornets x Panthers jerseys as a custom in real life.
It also presented an opportunity to develop and create content that would publish on our social channels and funnel people through to download our application and experience the story in a more immersive manner. These type of videos would serve a dual purpose to drive users to download our app but also drive awareness and enagement on those platforms natively, thus becoming powerful tools for cross pollination that allowed for exponential growth both from a social perspective but also in terms of getting eyeballs on our other content and building brand affinity.
As was the case with many lab projects, this type of social to app cross promotional content became a staple for things such as jersey swaps that would drive traffic to articles about new free agency signings, or prompt users to download the app to watch a new episode of Game of Zones and would result in often times 300-400% increases in app downloads for the day that they were posted.
Another similar execution that was a deeply visual exploration focused on more modern methods of storytelling targeted towards a younger millennial and Gen Z demographic was the NBA Emoji project that I helped code and art direct. Prior to the mainstream implementation of emoji keyboards, this project was ahead of it's time as it was a set of 32 custom emoji around NBA icons, players, and moments that users were given a chance to play with as a release on one of the biggest days of the NBA calendar, Christmas.
The NBA would eventually partner with twitter to release its own set of emoji about 3 years later, proving that the spirt of the Media Lab in being ahead of the curve was alive and well. This project also became a conduit for an eventual Bleacher Report commercial around the launch of our new "We Live for This" slogan.
One pop culture experiment that utilized this similar approach was our NFL Simpsonized project which featured the most prominent superstar icons of the NFL presented as Simpsons characters to celebrate both the shows 25th anniversary and the start of the NFL season. This execution was so successful that we ran it back multiple times on our social channels during the 2016 NBA finals and the return of the UEFA Champions league in 2019.
This would become the basis for much of our social content that looked at the intersection point between sports and culture and how we could amplify the drama happening on the field with a relatable pop culture storytelling backbone. Working with an Amsterdam based illustrator we drew NFL superstars as Simpsons characters and owned the conversation on the internet around the start of the season that day.
One pop culture experiment that utilized this similar approach was our NFL Simpsonized project which featured the most prominent superstar icons of the NFL presented as Simpsons characters to celebrate both the shows 25th anniversary and the start of the NFL season. This execution was so successful that we ran it back multiple times on our social channels during the 2016 NBA finals and the return of the UEFA Champions league in 2019. This would become the basis for much of our social content that looked at the intersection point between sports and culture and how we could amplify the drama happening on the field with a relatable pop culture storytelling backbone.
Simple projects that were visually focused and easily consumable on both desktop and mobile responsive layouts became a staple of what I would work on as a part of the Media Lab. A couple of examples of this is our "Illustrated Sports Cliches" and the "Ultimate NFL Player" pieces which were fun and quick turnaround visually oriented lab projects I was a designer and producer on that saw a very high level of engagement on our social platforms.
The next phase of evolving Bleacher Report's editorial departments through our Media Lab incubator was by combining the visually engaging storytelling with higher end events and anniversaries on the sports calendar that we could galvanize around. Generally our content strategy centered around the moments and stories that were happening in sports at any given moment, but we wanted to develop a way to celebrate the moments and players of the past in a way that was imminently sharable on social but also gave users a pleasing digital experience on our owned and operated platforms such as the website or app. I helped develop and art direct the concept of digital art galleries that would showcase contextualized pieces of sports artwork alongside a celebratory narrative.
The first of these centered around the legendary footballers to wear the number 7, and eventually evolved into pieces such as The Art of Kobe, and David Beckham at 40. Not only did I get a chance to contribute to these myself, I also was able to curate the artwork from other contributors and build the digital experiences. The success of these executions would also lead to a collaboration with the Creative Action Network for our Transcend Art gallery that also became an experiential pop up.
I was charged with building the microsite for these experiences and curating and art directing much of the work that went into them and through this really gained the knowledge and rolodex of artists that would help launch our social department to new heights in coming years with it's numerous original content collaborations. In many ways, these projects set the stage for the next evolution of Bleacher Report as a brand by giving me and the team a chance to incubate relationships and develop strategies that could be taken from these individual art focused projects and scaled on a social level.
After focusing on these more visual medium executions, there was a desire to meet in the middle and this is where I ideated the concept of Mirror Images, which was a deeply immersive visual exploration of former NBA stars and their modern day counterparts. This type of execution paired the art gallery style high resolution parallax design that placed the artwork front and center, but it was also paired with elements of our earlier editorial explorations. This was a balance of visual storytelling with a backbone of written text that analyzed why and how these players compared to each other. From a psychedelic and kaleidoscopic video that drew users in from the jump, to downloadable high res artwork and quippy yet smart writing to supplement the visuals, it was a full package of the initiatives that the Lab was built to work on.
Mirror Images was a project that lent itself to social consumption but also was a unique web experience that allowed users to delve deeper into the thought process behind these player pairings. Upon release of this project we actually saw the high resolution artwork downloaded off the website over 17.1 Million times both in desktop and phone formats. To this day the website still gets users coming to download iPhone wallpapers, particularly the Kobe and Michael Jordan one which has tallied over 8 Million on it's own.
Upon the successful launch of projects such as the ones listed above, one of the biggest learnings coming out of it was that we needed to streamline this process so that we could find a way to implement this type of immersive and inherently social and visual storytelling at scale to far more pieces of content that Bleacher Report was producing. I was charged with developing a one of a kind content management system to build out these types of stories in repeatable formats. This internal template system for building out longform editorial content would form the backbone of some of our more unique experiments on the longform side, and would eventually become the infrastructure for our BR Mag content.
One of the best examples of this CMS being used to its full potential was a BR Kicks centric piece around the "Rise of Adidas" which used unique paper craft artwork and in depth editorial research to show the history behind the brand in a new way. It was also the project which launched the BR Kicks instagram channel as it's assets were meant to be shared on social.
One of the first longform templates I did the UI and UX design for was for article CMS was our Lars Anderson profile on Vince Carter a breakdown of Drake's impact on Sports or Howard Beck's amazing feature on LeBron and Melo. This internal content management system was meant to be flexible and house multiple forms of content. Internally we referred to it as "The Juicer" and I worked with two engineers Mike Fey and Pete Doherty to develop this over the course of 4 months.
This process began with me wire framing and sketching out layouts for potential long form templates that our editors would be able to take written content from our newly hired host of reputable writers and commissioned artwork or photography and plug and play new stories at scale. By doing a thorough mockup and refinement process alongside rigorous A/Btesting with small samples of users, we were able to land on a subset of 12 different basic article templates that could be freestyled and combined on a modular basis to create a variety of creative editorial layouts for different stories.
There were also more visual explorations in the mold of an NFL Simpsonized such as our He Reminds Me of Me series or our "What if LeBron never Left" type projects which I got to art direct and provide editorial support on. These projects would lay the groundwork for the eventual BR Mag department which was launched as a home for high end storytelling of this type. BR would go on to bring on talented writers such as Howard Beck and Jonathan Abrams and we would work in conjunction with our editorial team to develop a distinct look and feel for these projects. I was responsible for directing the visuals and working with illustrators and photographers to get assets together but also integral to building these experiences and pushing our templates to the limit as we found new ways to tell stories in innovative ways.
One of the first stories I did the art direction and some of the design work on along with Brian Konnick was for a Jonathan Abrams piece about Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan's fabled one on one pay per view game that never happened. This mag story titled, "The Greatest Game Never Played" made such a splash on the internet when the image of Magic Johnson's hypothetical Vegas crew image was shared by Snoop Dogg and even lead to a Snopes article debunking the image as real. Similar to the NBA x NFL jerseys the hypothetical jerseys that we created for the piece, with logo design from our in house designer Pete Schwedel, were turned into real jerseys as well. The image was so iconic that it continues to be shared on the internet to this day.
As the B/R editorial department grew and developed into more of a full scale operation, these Lab Templates were streamlined over time as can be seen in Mag articles such as "The Lamelo Show" "Operation Stop the Warriors" or our rookie "Luka Doncic: Come Up" profile which I had the chance to travel to Madrid to shoot and produce the video content for. In the case of our Come Up series, not only did that include art direction from the standpoint of the look and feel of the design of the article, but also the motion graphics and details such as the script and the wardrobe for the shoot.
As a part of the larger BR Mag initiative, I had the opportunity to contribute creative direction and design vision on projects such as our Power 50 rankings, our All-Star Lineup Generator, our 4/20 blowout on Athletes and Marijuana, and projects such as our 3 mural tribute to the World Cup called Larger Than Life.
These special projects were exactly what the early spirit of the media lab was, to create great rich editorial experiences with an artistic flair and a deep reverence for storytelling and narrative. Each product had to be treated like its own miniature documentary or project on a smaller scale. This attention to detail was translated from much of our high quality creative work on the social side, and so our editorial work needed to reflect those sensibilities. This is where I came in as I was able to bridge the gap between the editorial and social worlds and figure out the best way to package these stories in a way that would be easily consumable and yet still visually stunning.
Getting a chance to go to a place like Madrid to have an on shoot location for the BR Mag was something that I was tasked with doing to produce content for opportunities like this. It was a two pronged approach where we would have a traditional writer like Howard Beck do his interview and put together his well researched written piece, but someone like me would be sent along to help create a social and video asset angle that could draw in our massive audience to interact with the story. This unique access opportunity allowed us to be flexible and create for many different platforms in one go, and was exactly the type of content the Lab had always intended on doing.
The directive to work with our BR Mag editorial team allowed for a pairing of a top notch team of the best journalists in sports and paired them with a risk taking creative team that was willing to push boundaries to tell stories in a way that felt premium and different. By taking the elements of premium storytelling that I had helped to lay a foundation with under the initial Lab structure and adding in new reinforcements to help scale this blueprint allowed for us to publish a number of stories for BR Mag across the spectrum of topics in sports and culture.
The Mag department was honored 11 times by the Associated Press Sports Editors contest, and 10 times by The Best American Sports Writing anthology for work that I helped shape the creative vision for. The idea really was to scale the initial experiments or smaller level pilot projects that I had helped bring to reality in our small incubator and now implement them in "big swings" across the sports journalism spectrum in an attempt to grow the team out and build it into new verticals.
One of the major directives for The Lab and the BR Mag groups was to spark a moment of conversation amongst the community and to encourage an authentic dialogue around an important topic. A perfect example of this was the case study around our 420 special around the use of Marijuana by athletes as a tool for mental rehabilitation, physical recovery and therapy. Acting as an art director on the project along with Drew Patterson and working with our talented motion designer Jessica Dorricott we helped produce a cohesive visual look and feel for the project so that it would stand out as a premium execution. Upon release the video was shared millions of times on social platforms such as twitter and picked up as a subject of debate on shows such as First Take or Sportscenter.
Another fun project that I got to be a creative consultant on as a part of our larger BR Mag and Studios/Entertainment department collaboration directives was our "She Got Game" fake trailer that took cues from some of the editing that I had done on previous Kicks projects. I worked with Karin Hammerberg on the look and feel of the video and figuring out how to best showcase some of the assets in the trailer as it came together.
Directed by Va$htie, the short film also features cameos from Shaq, Steve Nash, Candace Parker, Young M.A., Markelle Fultz, Filayyyy and Bobbito Garcia, among many others. Out of the over 70 people, cast and crew and editors and producers who worked on this project 95% of them were women and I am glad I got to be a small part of such an impactful piece.
Leading up to the 2018 Russia FIFA World cup tournament the Mag department set out on another project that pushed the boundaries of scale, except this time in a more tangible and experiential level. Partnering with renowned New Orleans based Mural Artist BMike, we commissioned a series of 3 "Larger Than Life" murals of Mo Salah in Times Square NYC, Neymar in Miami's Brickell Arts District, and Paul Pogba on the New Orleans’ Lafitte Greenway neighborhood. Working as a consulting producer and assistant art director on the project I helped shape creative decisions around color palettes, themes, imagery, and social executions and ways to market the story to a larger audience in conjunction with our PR and Marketing teams.
One particular project worth highlighting that came about from some of BR Mag's loftier ambitions was an award winning partnership with Carmelo Anthony that produced our B-Real documentary series highlighting everyday heroes in the sports world and pairing them up with once in a lifetime experiences with sports superstars which I was a creative strategist and art director for. Matt Sullivan brought me in on the project to assist with creative ideation and production as the concept for the show came together.
The series won back to back Edward R. Murrow Awards for Electronic Journalism and changed the lives of some of the most inspiring young athletes in the nation. The ability to tell a compelling story while partnering with a multi time all-star like Carmelo and his buddies and simultaneously enacting meaningful change in local communities was a fulfilling endeavor and really sets this project apart in it's impact. Across two seasons of the show we were able to impact countless inspiring young athletes and make a distinct difference in their local communities.
Along with developing these editorial and social executions as a part to the Bleacher Report Media Lab initiative, I was also involved in our early animation endeavors such as our Splash Brothers parody or helping out in ideation and content development on projects like our Sports Gods Series or one off projects such as Fan Safari or our Johnny Bravo parody. These type of explorations were technically under a part of this lab department but became so much more in their own right.
Working in conjunction with Adam and Craig Malamut, I was given the opportunity to contribute ideas and concepts to our animation team and provide motion graphics support on projects like our Frozen Parody, "Let it Tank" featuring Kobe Bryant. This type of creative constant relationship would extend onto other projects such as Game of Zones as well. Collaborating with those two gave me insight into the level of detail required to pull off these animated projects and it was a pleasure for the Media Lab to include an animation aspect and to be able to contribute to such an integral part of the Bleacher Report ecosystem.
Over time, as the Media Lab expanded from a small and nimble team to the genesis of multiple other verticals within the company, the actual site itself returned to it's original format, an incubator for experiments such as a 360 LeBron James Free Agency immersive image I coded and collaborated with our tactical producer Mikey Navarro on. As can be seen below, we ran this experiment again with the start of NBA season, and you can check out the heat map of where users were exploring the 360 image.
Another bucket of content that was housed on the Lab was our mobile games initiative which I had the opportunity to help launch and develop multiple experiments around. These games included the likes of Flappy Beard, PokeBron, Mamba and Rack 'em Up that were developed under our tactical group as well. The spirit of the media lab lived on in the initiatives and ideas that were developed in the early years of the department.
In the end, the Media Lab was an incubator for some of the most impactful departments at Bleacher Report. I had the opportunity to wear many hats, that of a producer, creative strategist and consultant, graphic designer, motion graphics editor, video editor, art director, and programmer. The Lab provided the infrastructure for our BR Mag department to produce immersive longform content, it was the genesis of our animation team which would go on to become extremely robust and produce multiple award winning series.
It was the start of the DNA for our Social Moments team which built reactive content and lead to the monetization and extreme growth of Bleacher Report's social platforms. Being a part of such an impactful department and having a chance to shape the voice and structure of the company in such profound ways by being the incubator for many successful ideas that would definite our business model was nothing short of amazing.