NFL Kickoff 2020: Bleacher Report Devises COVID-Safe Production Plan for New Player-Driven Underrated Series

NFL-focused content vertical, B/R Gridiron, enters second season off a strong debut campaign

After a successful rollout of its NFL-focused B/R Gridiron-brand vertical, Bleacher Report is rolling into the new NFL season with a wealth of original content designed to build engaging content the way only B/R can.

Among the highlights of the new content calendar are the series Underrated Presented by State Farm, which Bleacher is producing in partnership with Mandalay Sports Media — the group behind widely praised documentary series The Last Dance.

For Bleacher Report’s new series Underrated, host Adam Lefkoe interviews players via Zoom as a local film crew shoots them performing various live football drills to make the case to increase their player rating in the Madden NFL videogame series.

The concept of the series is simple: players react to their ratings in the newest edition of the Electronic Arts-produced videogame Madden NFL 21 and must prove on the spot in a series of drills why they deserve a higher rating than the game has assigned them.

Underrated taps into the zeitgeist surrounding Madden NFL player ratings and the heated conversation that happens with fans and the players themselves who feel they should be rated higher in specific skills,” said Bleacher Report Chief Content Officer Sam Toles in an official release this week. “This is the type of innovative, fan-forward content our audiences crave, the sweet spot connecting sports, fandom, and culture.”

The eight-episode series premiered this week (Episode 1 stars Denver Broncos rookie wide receiver Jerry Jeudy), but this was a summer-long project littered with COVID-fueled logistical challenges that the B/R team overcame to create original content with a special level of access.

According to Bleacher Report lead producer Sean McManus, shoots were arranged with safety in mind. At a field close to the players, small video crews — made up largely of local freelancers — would shoot footage of the player participating in live action drills and conducting interviews with host Adam Lefkoe, who spoke to the players from his home via Zoom.

Crews onsite typically include two handheld–camera operators, a drone pilot, and technicians and producers to ensure quality across the shoot. McManus even arranged to have cellphone cameras rigged atop the shoulder-mount cameras so that Lefkoe could see, in real time via Zoom, angles of all of the footage being shot.

“Madden is always a hot topic,” McManus said to SVG. “With the hardcore Madden audience, they consume pretty much whatever type of content you’re doing with Madden. That combination of the hardcore Madden audience with a more general football audience that likes to see their favorite players doing drills that they normally wouldn’t be able to see is an exciting combination. [You’re] seeing their personalities on the field. I think those are the two main audiences that will love Underrated.”

The series joins a healthy lineup of B/R Gridiron content: Untold Stories (an award-winning show featuring behind-the-scenes stories of NFL legends that premieres exclusively on Facebook Watch), Gridiron Heights (the light-hearted animated comedy series), Your Fantasy Fire Drill (a live, interactive fantasy-football–focused show that airs on the B/R app prior to the start of action every Sunday), and The Lefkoe Show (the B/R host’s biweekly NFL podcast).

In its first year of hyper-focused NFL content, B/R Gridiron has garnered more than 2 million followers across the world of social platforms and averaged more than 34 million video views each month last season. According to Bleacher Report, the numbers add up to make it the top digital sports publisher on NFL Sundays, and eight of the 20 most-followed streams on the B/R app are NFL-specific.

“In just one year, we’ve built a football-content portfolio that drives massive levels of engagement with fans,” says Toles, “and we believe the upcoming B/R Gridiron slate is going to take us to the next level. We’ve built a versatile content lineup that will be sure to entertain football fans throughout the season.”