Bleacher Report’s Secret Weapon Is A 23-Year-Old Instagram Savant
When the Brooklyn Nets played the Utah Jazz at the Barclay’s Center this past November, there were 14,495 fans cheering on their favorite team. In the crowd were 23-year-old Omar Raja and his middle-aged boss, Doug Bernstein. Raja is the creator of the insanely popular sports-centric Instagram account House of Highlights, and Bernstein hired him a little over a year ago, right out of college, to join the staff of the Turner-owned cult sports site Bleacher Report.
The pair came to an amazing realization at that game: House of Highlights attracts nearly as many new followers every day as the number of fans sitting in that Brooklyn arena. The account is growing at 10,000 followers a day, “which is insane,” says Bernstein.
“I think,” interrupts Raja, “it’s actually 12,000 a day—it’s like 500 an hour.”
The Instagram account had fewer than a million followers when Bleacher Report hired Raja in 2016. “The first thought was just let it grow,” says Bernstein. “Let it get as big as it possibly can.” He told Raja to just do his thing and not worry about anything else.
And, indeed, that’s what Raja has done. He generally wakes up at around 8 a.m., and immediately checks his phone. And boy does he need to. Raja routinely has thousands of notifications (between two phones) that occurred for the six to seven hours he was asleep. He sifts through them all morning, reading, deleting, and cleaning out his feeds, until he gets to his Midtown Manhattan office. Then he goes through his direct messages—about 700 a day. A few hours later, Raja begins to think about work.
As a result, House of Highlights “went from 1.1 million to 7.6 million in the course of 20 months,” says Bernstein. In November, it earned 102 million interactions—making it the eighth most interacted-with account on Instagram. According to data from CrowdTangle, the account saw 2.32 billion video views in the last three months.
Along with the celebrities and sports figures who follow Raja’s account, there are people like Eugene Wei, the former head of video for the VR headset company Oculus, who recently wrote about the seismic sports consumption change that House of Highlights represents:
Two nights ago, I watched a clip of multiple angles of Tua Tagovailoa ripping a laser beam of a pass to win the National Championship for Alabama. I didn’t watch it live, or on ESPN. I watched it on House of Highlights on Instagram, where, instead of hearing some anchor on Sportscenter basically tell me what I can see with my own eyes, the video spins around after a moment to reveal the stunned face of the fan who just witnessed the pass live, reaction videos being a new sort of genre that allows a person in the video to act as the emoji reaction caption from within the video itself, speaking a visual language that most young people of this YouTube/Snapchat generation are already familiar with but which traditional media doesn’t notice, let alone grok.
The magic began when Raja was a sophomore at the University of Central Florida back in 2014. He was kind of aimless, and feeling depressed. Why? Because “Lebron [James] had just left the Heat”—his favorite team. In his despondency, Raja surfed YouTube to find clips from games, “trying to find moments that I remember, and that I really associated with that team,” he says. “These are clips I would share with my friends back in the day,” such as Lebron dunking on an opponent, a funny interaction between two players on the court during a timeout, or an athlete making a funny face into the camera. Convivial moments—funny, relatable—that punctuate the flow of games. These forgotten yet essential seconds are the reason why so many people idolize athletes. It’s a reminder that they’re human. They’re playing to have fun.
The problem was, YouTube didn’t have these clips. Raja spent a few weeks trying to find any online outlet for these videos, but nothing existed. “I said to myself, Why not try to do it myself?” Raja adds that he did perform a bit of legal due diligence. He says he talked to someone, who wasn’t necessarily at the NBA but was “familiar with the situation,” who told Raja that “as long as it’s not a fight or something else that makes the NBA look bad, they won’t go after you.” (NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said that highlights are marketing.)
Thus began House of Highlights, where you’re equally likely to find a moment from last night’s Celtics game or a user-shot video of an average joe doing something sports-related. Each of these clips is accompanied by captions that are short, explanatory, and written in Raja’s twentysomething voice that often read like text on a popular meme (expect words like “lit” and many emojis).
In its early days, all the posts on House of Highlights were user-generated. Either Raja or someone else would see a funny clip, and then send it in to be uploaded. At the time—with less than 500,000 followers—it seemed like a fun piece of viral ephemera. “You’re waiting for a period for it to die down,” says Raja, but that never happened. People kept following and commenting and tagging their friends. It was an easy way for young sports fans to mesh their favorite pastimes with their other favorite pastime: being online.
Soon enough, Raja was in the Bleacher Report‘s crosshairs. Bernstein and his team had been looking for ways to expand into other social platforms. “We forget,” he tells me, that back in 2015, “Instagram was all photos.” But Raja was doing something different that seemed to work. For one, he was posting videos. Two, he had an unvarnished sensibility. Posts would include culturally relevant captions spoken directly from Raja’s mind.
“His voice,” says Bernstein, “it’s so unique and so differentiated. It was the way people talk to their friends.”
And so Bleacher Report made Raja an offer. The company won’t discuss the terms, but obviously it was one that he couldn’t refuse. Now Raja has a job doing what he was doing before, except he’s no longer in a dorm room. With this, House of Highlights was able to utilize Bleacher Report‘s—and by extension Turner’s—content partnerships that would allow Raja to post clips from even more leagues. He now watches sports and fiddles with his phone; he does this seven days a week. House of Highlights is his life, and it’s a life that seems to suit him—though it may interfere with what most 23-year-olds consider to be a normal social life.
Raja doesn’t seem to mind. “What’s funny is that two months before Doug emailed me in July ’15,” Raja says, “I was actually driving back from Miami to Orlando and I was getting ready for my summer semester. So I was saying to myself, “Oh, I’ve got one more year left. Am I going to try to go into the workforce, or should I apply to Bleacher Report?”
Funny how things work out.
Raja comes off as an average guy when he’s sitting across from you in a conference room. But talk about something he knows and likes—say, the list of celebrities who either follow or have reposted House of Highlights, which includes Drake, LeBron James, Nicki Minaj, Kevin Hart, Christiano Ronaldo, The Rock, and Justin Timberlake—and he’ll light up, make piercing eye contact, gesticulate, and talk your ear off. He is somehow both excitable and cool.
He can get a bit antsy when you’re not talking to him about something he loves, which is probably a side effect of having a job that requires you to be on your phone at all times. Raja says he often needs to open his phone while in a meeting with people, although this thankfully doesn’t happen during our time together.
I don’t know if you’ve heard the news, but young folks like to be on their phones. One recent survey says that 75% of kids ages 6-17 want to pursue a career in online video making. As Bernstein sees it, the way to reach this group is to find them on their native turf. For Bleacher Report, it’s no longer a question of how to create the next SportsCenter, but how to invent a new format that authentically speaks to what marketers so lovingly refer to as “Generation Z.” Bernstein recalls a friend of his who used to work at MTV during its heyday, describing it as “reflecting and amplifying youth culture.” That’s what he sees House of Highlights doing.
From there, the plan goes, Bleacher Report will profit. House of Highlights has already doubled its revenue from the year before. And this year, the House will be expanding its branded content offering, which started with four videos produced last year with Under Armor. The Curry Challenge, in which Raja and his team shared videos of everyday people landing hoops like the NBA’s Steph Curry, became a branded opportunity for Curry 4 sneakers, which Raja just so happens to be wearing during our meeting. These branded posts performed just as well as every other post—in fact, the first one was the most popular post in the account’s history, hitting nearly 3 million views, all organic.
Of course, not every partnership will fit with the House of Highlights sensibility. Bernstein says partnerships are currently “invitation only.” But many more Curry-like challenges are on the horizon.
This growth means a few changes for Raja, including an expansion of his staff. Until this past November, Raja was the only person with keys to the account, and that meant he was working every day, watching every game. Now there are five people on the House of Highlights team, mostly producers who help brainstorm new ideas and execute original content, as well as posters. The newest poster, Drew, is slowly getting the hang of it. I ask Raja if he trusts Drew to run the account on his own. He pauses for a moment and says, “We’re getting close.” Once, when Raja was busy, he let Drew post something. But for now, “He always sends it to me and I approve it.”
It’s not that Raja is a content tyrant, mind you. He seems pretty chill about most things. But it becomes clear that this account is an extension of his being. Raja is hyper-aware that every attempt to grow House of Highlights must remain true to his essence. If not, then the magic will vanish.
Hell, even Raja’s name has become a minor meme. Last year, one of Raja’s friends commented on a House of Highlights post—the comment was something like, “Hey Omar, nice caption.” And because the account followed this friend, everyone received a notification. As a result, Raja recounts, “People were all like, ‘Who the fuck is Omar?’” Then it dovetailed into a meme. Thousands of comments saying, “Who is Omar?” others saying, “Hey Omar, you’re doing a great job.” It just kept going. “I had to change my bio to, ‘Yes, I’m Omar’,” says Raja. And since then, it’s been a trope of the account, and a shibboleth for participating in the House of Highlights community.
Soon, though, there will be someone other than Omar manning the feed, and this is all part of Bernstein’s plan. In 2012, Turner bought Bleacher Report as a way to go up against legacy players like ESPN, whose ratings continue to drop as it struggles to find a strategy for reaching younger audiences. Turner has said it will invest heavily—$100 million, to be exact—in its digital sports company. And House of Highlights is the company’s slam dunk with twentysomethings.
Raja and Bernstein are also planning to produce scripted content. But rather than pitching full-length TV shows, House of Highlights is launching a YouTube channel. “That’s where kids of my age are really at,” says Raja. “It’s the main thing to attack.”
They are also looking for YouTube stars to help rep the brand. The first talent they’ve signed to an exclusive content deal is a YouTube and Instagram virtuoso with the handle “supremedreams_1.” The man behind the account, 22-year-old Mark Phillips, is moving from Texas to New York and will be using a new studio space Bleacher Report is building for Raja’s growing team.
Phillips has over 1.5 million subscribers on YouTube. When Bernstein and Phillips made a stop at a Long Island McDonald’s late last year, an onslaught of teens and tweens appeared and surrounded the YouTube star. They just kept coming, gawking, taking pictures. More fans arrived in the parking lot. “We literally shut down the McDonald’s,” says Bernstein. Even on the streets of New York, Phillips will often be stopped by fans during the two-block walk from Bleacher Report’s offices to the subway.
This deal, says Raja, most likely means Phillips will create a post a week—using only his phone, of course. Anything that has to do with sports or sports culture will be owned by Bleacher Report. (Phillips does some anime content on the side, which remains separate.) And Bleacher Report is seeking out more partnerships as well.
But Raja doesn’t think much is going to change. He’s still going to get up every morning and try to connect with his millions of fans. And while there will be more helping hands working the account, he’s still probably going to continue watching the games every night. His life is a routine these days. He gets up, goes to work, leaves early and then watches hundreds of hours of sports. He likes it.
“That feeling of being burnt out is not there at all,” he says. “I’m 23, too—I don’t have a lot to worry about right now, and that’s awesome.”