From startup to digital powerhouse, Bleacher Report has helped lead a fundamental shift in how media companies create and distribute content around sports. It’s this disruption that the Turner-owned mega-company is now taking to the physical world thanks to the #LargerThanLife murals that popped up in Miami, New Orleans, and New York City leading up to this year’s World Cup.
Not one for small plans, B/R is using the month-long showcase of the world’s best footballing talent as a showcase of its own, specifically for their football channels.
With Turner paying UEFA $65 million dollars a year for the next three years to broadcast the Champions League across TBS, TNT, and B/R Live, Bleacher Report’s focus is creating content that will help Americans fall in love with the stars who transcend culture both on and off the pitch.
“We have a plan as an organization for our Champions League coverage, both on TV and digitally, for next year,” said Ryan O’Leary, Senior Digital Video Producer for B/R. “We have about 25-30 guys that we want to center our coverage around to help Americans fall in love with a player, a team, and the game of football as a whole.”
As for the three players they chose to highlight in their #LargerThanLife campaign, O’Leary and his staff set out to find individuals who were having a big season, had a lot of expectations surrounding their World Cup campaign, and had intriguing stories to tell.
Enter Neymar, Paul Pogba, and Mo Salah.
“We came out with Neymar, given the pressure of what happened in 2014, we have Mo Salah, who arguably had one of the best seasons of anyone across Europe, and then we have Paul Pogba, who always has controversy around him, but embodies who our audience is,” said O’Leary when speaking about the initial list and what set these three apart.
When it came to selecting the appropriate location, O’Leary and his team wanted to make sure that beyond being visible, the portraits were in locations that embodied what the players and what they have accomplished both on and off the pitch.
They found that in Miami, New Orleans, and New York City — all of which made sense to the B/R staff for reasons beyond just population and notoriety.
“Miami made sense for Neymar because it’s bright, it’s vibrant, it’s colorful, it’s flashy and it’s extremely South American. That is everything that Neymar is,” O’Leary said. “We did New Orleans for Pogba because New Orleans is a city of creativity, it’s a French city, and it’s a city rooted in culture and fun. That is Paul Pogba. For New York City, it’s sort of the melting pot of the world and Mo Salah did an amazing job this year, not just on the field, but off the field uniting people of all beliefs, creed, color, etc.”
Working with renowned artist Brandan “Bmike” Odums, B/R set out to make the 2,800-10,000 square feet surfaces come alive thanks to the insight gained in hour-long interviews with each of the players, a move that O’Leary saw as a way to break the mold of traditional European media coverage of football.
“The way that the European media has covered soccer for so long, the access isn’t there. They get a couple minutes after a match, with the players in front of a wall full of advertisers and they get very canned bites and very bland answers. There’s not a lot about personalities or stories about clubs that you really get to see, we’re not just trying to break the mold, but destroy it.”
The main reason why the players were so excited to participate? O’Leary believes it is because B/R was able to conceptualize an unprecedented content opportunity.
“We were able to get an hour with Salah and an hour with Pogba because we were telling a story where we weren’t trying to write a report, we were trying to create compelling content around some of the biggest stars in the world. That was a different sort of offering that they hadn’t seen before.”
Once the interviews concluded, Odums went to work, sifting through hours of video, thousands, of pictures, and hundreds of articles to deliver an idea he would be able to execute in 3-4 days.
“They gave me the three cities and the three players they wanted to focus on and from there it was just about finding the appropriate images and trying to understand the game because truthfully, I wasn’t following soccer,” Odums said. “I really wanted to understand and learn why this was such a big deal. I did a lot of research by looking at images and videos in order to find the appropriate ones that would summarize these individuals and their body of work.”
“He took this project and turned it into something that we couldn’t have even imagined. It was bigger and better than what we had expected. I think that his ability to take static images and make them come to life is unparalleled.” – Ryan O’Leary on working with Brandan Odums.
Having to paint massive murals has its own inherent challenges, but having to do them in three different cities, with three different players, and still find a way to connect them all was the most exciting part of the project for Odums. To do that, Odums turned to the player’s hair.
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“That was the one thing that visually connected all three of them. Their hair was almost telling a story. Whether it was the sweat in their hair that showed how hard they were working or just the hairstyles themselves, all of their hair had a lot of character. In the process of trying to figure out how to connect all three of them, but also leave room for the images to be simple but have a lot of information the hair made it all possible.”
“I just wanted to explore a lot of different things, whether it be images from their country, flowers, textures, all these things. I wanted it to be simple enough that you could look at it in eight seconds and know what is going on.” – Odoms on how he chose how he wanted to paint the portraits.
Known for his public art, Odums paints with more than just the client in mind, a trait that has allowed for his work to not only appear on social platforms around the world but inspire those taking the pictures.
“When I was creating these pieces, I wanted the portraits to not only inspire people but also allow them to see themselves reflected in the portraits,” mentioned Odums as he detailed what each piece meant to him. “Whether they are fans of the team or just the athlete, as long as they see themselves reflected in those faces to the point where they take ownership. That is always the coolest thing about public art because it becomes something that is more than you as an artist has created; it becomes something that people take ownership of.”
The Follow Through
While the murals were painted specifically for this project, there are no immediate plans to bring them down, leaving Salah to inspire the people of New York, Neymar to add color to the streets of Miami, and Pogba to help with the revitalization of a neighborhood in New Orleans.
Thanks to O’Leary, a group of 10 people, “Bmike”, and a willingness to push the envelope, B/R used creative collaboration and something as simple as a paintbrush and spray can to innovate storytelling once again.