Professional Conference Call: Omar Raja, Founder, House Of Highlights

This past Friday’s guest as part of Sports Business Chronicle’s weekly conference call was Omar Raja, Founder of the House of Highlights Instagram brand, which is now underneath the Bleacher Report umbrella. 

Raja discussed his undergraduate career at UCF, founding the House of Highlights brand, why its content resonates with the NBA community, how he and his colleagues handled the J.R. Smith last-second snafu from Game 1 of the NBA Finals, original programming and working with social influencers like Mark Phillips, the brand shifting to other sports verticals, being on YouTube now and more.

In case you missed it, here are prior calls with professionals from Instagram Sports, New York Yankees, The Athletic and Vegas Golden Knights, among other organizations. View our upcoming schedule, too.

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On career goals in college at Central Florida…

What’s funny is that I honestly had no idea. I was a general business major, and I think I switched a couple times. I switched to finance. I switched to accounting, and I switched back to general business. I really had no idea, and I think that, listen if House of Highlights never became a thing or if I never started it, I probably would’ve just gone and done my MBA or something. I honestly was just trying to figure something out. If you told me then, like ‘Hey, you’d be working for Bleacher Report’, I probably would’ve lost my mind because it’s kind of a dream job at this point, where I can watch the NBA Finals last night, and it’s my job and that’s kind of amazing to me.

On becoming first aware of B/R…

I’ve probably been aware of Bleacher Report since 2010, 2011. You do a random Google search and a Bleacher Report article comes out. When I got connected to the brand was probably around 2012 or 2013. I can’t really remember when exactly, but I remember there was a nationally-televised basketball game that I was watching with my friends and Bleacher Report, the app at the time, was called Team Stream and there was a Team Stream alert. My friend said, ‘Yo, have you downloaded this app called Team Stream by Bleacher Report? They’re just so quick with news and everything’. That was my first time being exposed to their app. So what happened was I downloaded the app. Then I followed them on Twitter. I was immediately hooked at that point, especially with their social content. When you’re a Heat fan and in 2013, I think with that attachment and just trying to know so much about that team, I grew closer and closer to that brand.

On the formation of House of Highlights…

I would say the foundation gets built because when that (Miami Heat) team in 2010 is formed, it’s the most hated team in the league. I think everyone had this us vs. them mentality. That’s when you go in the bunker, and you just start following every sports outlet cause you just want to know everything about this team cause the expectation is so high. What happened is since you become such a big die-hard fan, in 2014, LeBron says he’s going back to Cleveland and immediately, you just get shocked. You’re depressed in a way, and it’s like going through a breakup. Those next few days are weird, and then what happens is you’re trying to reminisce about some of the old content that I had been seeing and sharing with my friends.

When I was in college, we would literally record our TV screen and send specific clips that were happening in the game in our little Whatsapp or iMessage group. What was interesting is when LeBron left, I was trying to find those clips again. I just imagined they would be on YouTube or they’d be on Twitter somewhere or on Vine and they weren’t. I was kind of saying to myself, ‘This is weird because these are the clips I know people my age and my friends are sharing and talking about and no one else is covering them. Like, why is this so difficult to find?’ I spent a couple more weeks trying to find a website, a YouTube, anything that might have this type of content, and I couldn’t really find it. So I said to myself, ‘I’m going to make it myself’.

On the voice of the House of Highlights account…

That’s kind of what helps me use certain clips and make them into gold. If you don’t have that voice, then there’s not really much to work with. That’s something I’ve kind of been working on for the last three, four years. It’s the same way I would speak to my friends. The tricky thing with the NBA would be having that voice to pull off some of those clips we use on House of Highlights.

On his confidence when he first started House of Highlights, and how he knew he could gain followers/traction…

It was more like 100,000 (followers) in a year (was the goal). It still is a huge number. What kind of gave me that confidence is when I was young, I was 14, 15, I was really big on YouTube when YouTube first started. I made a YouTube account. I used to make videos for this company called Machinima. They’d be about sports. Sometimes, they’d be about video games. Sometimes, they’d be about, literally one of them was about the ending of The Dark Knight Rises, and it was a breakdown of what happened at the end. I was doing a little bit of everything. Kind of the rise of YouTube was built on personalities, and you see it now with Instagram. Instagram is now built on personalities. I viewed the start of YouTube and the start of Instagram as very similar. I was very confident. I was like, ‘I’ve kind of done this before. This is my do-over kind of’. I felt very confident about it.

On if he had an ‘A-ha’ moment when the account started picking up steam…

It was crazy. There really wasn’t that ‘A-ha’ moment. A few months in you’re just like ‘Oh my god. I’ve already hit the 100,000-follower mark’. The expectation was it was going to take 12 months, and it happened in like a month and a half. Now, at this point, it’s just crazy. We get like 10,000 followers a day, so I can hit that 100,000 mark in 10 days instead of that 12 months I was thinking.

On his initial vision for the account…

You know what’s funny? I don’t know. If we went to Omar in 2014 and said, ‘It’s going to have 9.2 million followers. It’s going to have 2 million views on average for every video. The third most video views on Instagram’, I would’ve said, ‘You’re crazy’. That’s when I know it’s cliche. You take it one day at a time, and you kind of just see what happens. I’ll be honest. I didn’t think 9.2 million followers in all those stats. There’s just no way you kind of can predict that at that point.

On the reasons House of Highlights resonates with basketball fans…

There are a lot of layers to it. The foundation, at first, was building it on having everything you need. I felt like and I still feel like our team does it better than everybody. We’re going to have not only all the main traditional plays, where it’s a highlight, it’s a dunk, it’s a crossover, it’s a pass, we’re going to have funny moments, we’re going to have funny captions. We’re going to have all of that. Then what we kind of sprinkled in is we kind of looked at what else does well. Obviously, some of it is user-generated content, so because of the 500, 600 (daily) DMs and because the account is so big at this point, we’re usually first to every user-generated content.

 The next guest for our weekly professional conference call is Allan Walsh, NHL agent at Octagon Hockey. It’ll be Tuesday, June 5 from 2:30-3:30 p.m. ET.

At this point, we’re the first to challenges. If you remember, the running man challenge, that started on House of Highlights. If you remember, the drive-by dunk challenge, that started on House of Highlights. Even the (Stephen) Curry challenge. You have the foundation with House of Highlights and UGC. We kind of looked at what does really well, and it was actually content by social influencers. Some of that at first was built on relationships with some of these guys, whether it was BDot A Dot (@bdotadot5) or Famous Los (@FamousLos32), some of these guys that do good impersonations. We saw one person sticking out more than anybody else, and it was this person named Mark Phillips, a.k.a. @SupremeDreams_1 and his content resonated extremely well. There was even another post yesterday by him about the NBA Finals. Content with influencers is really based on relatability and making people feel like, ‘Oh, I’m not the only one that thinks like this’ or ‘I’m not the only one whose friends act a certain way’. Those are the three pillars that we all hit. It’s highlights, UGC and original influencer content.

On sifting through so many DMs on a daily basis…

I would say end of 2015 is when they really started picking up, but what was interesting too is I had a different way of looking at it. When I did the YouTube videos, I was all about one of the series I used to do was top plays. I would let people send in their clips, I would credit them, and I would shout out their name. What’s interesting is if you look at the traditional media outlets today, even on Instagram, if you’re a follower and you submit content to somebody and they just end up using it, there is no credit given to them. Kind of what I did early on is if I use your clip, I would say, ‘Hey, here’s the person that owns the clip and then here’s also the person that’s submitted me the clip’.

It could just be something cool they saw, and they wanted me to post it. They could send it, and I could clear it with the original owner. What was interesting is people love being credited because they’re going to gain some followers when I put ‘submitted by Jason’, and Jason’s going to get an extra 500 followers that day. That was kind of the advantage that I had from 2014 and still to this day, we’re the only people that say ‘Hey, this is the person that owns this clip, and here’s the person that submitted the content to us’. That’s also kind of an element of why we get so many submissions, and people really want us to post some of the stuff they send.

On how he views the timeliness of what he’s posting…

Honestly, at this point, it’s become gut. Two years ago, there’s maybe more of a strategy of spreading content out and being really quick with highlights. At this point, I just have a good pulse of how things are going to react. To anyone listening, experiment a little bit when you first start. Those are the opportunities you’re going to get to mess around and learn, so in 2014, I know I messed around with different types of content, when to post it, posting it first, posting an hour later. What’s the difference in what kind of happens. Yesterday after the game, we posted probably 20 videos. At this point, I kind of know it won’t hurt performance, so I post them all right after the game, especially with something big like the J.R. Smith situation happens. A lot of that at this point is just four years, and you kind of just judge it based on your gut.

On if there’s a time window or day of the week that performs better than others..

I would say with sports, be as quick as possible. With user-generated content, you don’t want to get beat. You should probably jump on that before anyone else has it, so a year ago or two years ago or three years ago, I could probably sit or wait on content. At this point, it’s a very competitive landscape. If I’ve got something first, I’ve got to just roll it out at this point. For timing, I post whenever, but I do think 8 o’clock, 9 o’clock, 10 o’clock, those are kind of prime time hours. Except on Fridays. Fridays people are out. People are tired. People are going to sleep. Whatever it may be. Friday nights are nights that I’m not really big on. Saturday night, Sunday night, Monday night, etcetera, those are kind of the days other than Friday.

On if there’s pressure to be “on” all the time…

I have my phone in my hand right now. 24/7/365. What was interesting is the Bryan Colangelo, the 76ers General Manager. That was on an off day, and it was like 10 o’clock when that story broke, and I was at that gym. I was like, ‘Oh my god. Now I have to go home and figure this out”. This thing is, especially with the NBA, the NBA more than any other sport, it’s just become a 24/7/365 soap opera. You cannot predict this stuff. I would have never predicted the J.R. Smith thing. That happened at the last second. I would have said a minute before that happened, we were going to have five or six videos. We ended up with 20-plus, so you just can’t predict this.

On how he and his team handled the J.R. Smith situation from Game 1 of the NBA Finals…

It’s me and another person, Drew Corrigan, who helps me post. It’s me and him that do all the posts. He started in 2018. When we kind of got on today, we kind of had some plans. We had a cool original content piece, where I think the interesting thing is everyone is tired of Cavs-Warriors. We kind of played off that. Everyone is going to say they’re not going to watch the Finals, but when the Finals are on, they’re immediately going to be glued to their TV screen. That’s kind of the relatable thing and that played well.

When the Finals are going on, we had some stuff ready. We had JaVale McGee. He missed the dunk. We had a LeBron montage ready. We also had a Warriors montage ready. What I mean by montage is just a random assortment of clips that were relevant throughout that game. What was interesting is we were all prepping that stuff when George Hill was shooting the free throws. When he missed the free throw and J.R. Smith catches it and completely forgets they are tied and not ahead, I knew immediately that all the focus now is we’re going to have put all the other clips on hold, and we’re just going to have to focus on J.R. cause that is one of the biggest blunders I’ve ever seen in my life, so I know the Internet is going crazy right now.

When the time ran out, I quickly checked Twitter. You see all the Tweets and all the numbers on those Tweets, too. I knew immediately all the focus was going to be on J.R. From that point on, I was communicating to Drew, like ‘Hey, obviously cut this clip, but we need to cut everything associated with this, whether it’s an interview, the replays. Whether it’s reading his lips to kind of understand what he’s saying to LeBron when LeBron’s yelling at him’. When the game ends, all the J.R. stuff comes out, and we post all those clips. Once we get to a feel like, it’s been 30 or 40 minutes and the wave is slowing down, that’s when we kind of look at, ‘OK now the Warriors montage should come out. OK, well if people still are rooting for LeBron and feel like LeBron doesn’t have help, let’s post this LeBron 50-point montage and see how that does’. It changed to where we had five posts ready, and they were all going to come out kind of right when the game ended. Instead, there was a bunch of J.R. Smith-related clips at first and then we kind of felt it out. I don’t even think we ended up posting the JaVale McGee Shaqtin moment because it just didn’t feel like people cared anymore.

On how Omar and House of Highlights/Bleacher Report team track what people are talking about in NBA circles…

I wasn’t big on analytics because I didn’t have access to them in college. But when I joined Bleacher Report, there was some analytics programs like CrowdTangle and stuff like that. Do I use CrowdTangle every day? No. What’s interesting about the J.R. situation is when that was going on, I could look at Twitter for 15 seconds, because somebody has to cut these clips, somebody has to watch the feed 10-15 times to see if there’s anything the general public might have missed. What’s interesting about that is I probably didn’t get on Twitter on a real level and actually scroll down until like 2 to 2:15 a.m. when my day ended.

A lot of it at this point really is when we talk about House of Highlights, it’s a community. When I posted that first video right after the first game, I looked at the comments section. You could just feel out what people were talking about. Especially now with Instagram, that comment box is more of a community than it’s ever been because now people can ‘like’ those comments and the higher those comments are liked, the higher they are when you click on the comment box. Immediately, you can look at the first three or four things that are the highest-voted things in the comments section and see what people care about and want to see and what they’re interested in.

On the moment he found out Bleacher Report was interested in acquiring House of Highlights…

I screenshotted the email, and I sent it to my Whatsapp group chat to be very honest with you. When the call was set up, I was terrified. I was very nervous. It’s kind of funny to talk about that now, but I remember being very nervous, and I really wanted to kind of nail that conversation with (House of Highlights GM) Doug (Bernstein). It looks like it worked out.

On the creative freedom and direction from Doug and the Bleacher Report crew…

They were great. I mentioned it to them early on when I joined like, ‘What’s my role going to be?’ I think what was awesome was and even to this day, I get to make every content decision. I get to post whatever I want. They said, ‘Just keep doing you. Just keep growing the account. There’s no pressure’. For that next year, started in 2014, bought in 2016, nothing changed for that next year. I was still living in Florida and the Bleacher Report folks let me keep doing what I’m doing because they wanted the account to naturally grow and kind of build that community. They really weren’t interested in ruining anything, so they kind of let me be me. Credit to them because it’s hard to give a 22-year-old, a 23-year-old a bunch of freedom, and they did that.

On how his team has evolved…

We’ve got me. I kind of do a little bit of everything. I do some of the posts. Sometimes, you fly over to brands and pitch brands on House of Highlights and tell them the origin story, because they’re all interested in it. There’s a lot of different things. We have Doug Bernstein, who is the General Manager. He oversees the ship. We have Drew Corrigan, who is another poster. After that, we have an ops person. We have two or three producers. The producer’s role is we have original content coming out. We had one yesterday. We have one today. Also, when me and Doug fly over to these brands, and we pitch them on House of Highlights, there’s going to be people who need to execute what we pitch them, some of the content sponsorship opportunities. Those producers not only touch on the original content, but they work with me and Doug to execute those branded campaigns that we do with Nike, Jordan, Under Armour, adidas, etcetera. 

On when House of Highlights started working with brands…

First brand was end of 2016. Lexus. It was based on user-generated content that people were submitting to us, and I think it was seven or 10 videos, where we would make highlight montages of influencers that were popular on the account. Not like comedic influencers. At that time in 2016, some of the people that were popular on the page, were people that could lift a lot of weight or do incredible athletic feats. At that time, that was kind of the focus with Lexus. This year, I think the first one was Nike. Then we had Jordan. We also had Under Armour. Then we have adidas kind of sprinkled throughout all that.

On if House of Highlights plans to move to other sports beyond basketball…

I think there will be. This year, was kind of the first year we were able to touch on some NFL stuff, because I think what leagues are starting to understand is the value of being on House of Highlights, kind of the marketing approach. When we look at House of Highlights’ audience, 52-53 percent of that audience is under the age of 24. It’s a very young audience that leagues would want their content to be in front of. It’s interesting. Two or three years ago, leagues would never give away their highlights for free. At this point now, they’re very envious, and they want to be on the page, similar to how the NBA has been able to be on the page on a daily basis. We’ll see what happens over the next year and a half. This was the first year we were able to touch on a lot of NFL stuff, which was great. I think some of the other leagues now are taking note of what the NFL did. Very honestly, they’re sending in clips as well. Once the NBA season is done, I would be very surprised if there wasn’t more diversity in sports content on the page.

On if athletes send in content to House of Highlights..

Yeah and even just like random celebrities that are like actors. That’s been the most interesting thing I would have never expected. What’s also interesting about the athletes too is it’s never the 15th guy on the bench. It’s all-stars. It’s max players that are sending in content. Not on a daily basis. On an every other week basis, you check your DMs and you’re like, ‘Oh wow, this person just sent something in’. Especially during the season, they send not only clips of themselves working out or their highlights, but they’ll be like, ‘Hey, I think you missed this clip of me dunking on somebody’. You’re like, ‘Did this person really send me that message?’ That’s one of the more surprising things throughout this journey.

On the account’s influence on the NBA community and if it’s surprising to him…

There’s no way you predict a lot of this stuff. That’s definitely probably at the top of the list. When you look at some of these names, can’t tell you them, but if you saw some of these names, you’d be like, ‘I cannot believe this’. Honestly, on a weekly basis, this whole job is a pinch-me moment.

On working with Mark Phillips a.k.a @SupremeDreams_1 around original programming…

When we look at House of Highlights, when we look at the audience, it was a young audience. Like I said earlier, 52-53 percent of that audience is under the age of 24. We want to be where young people are at, so we decided that YouTube was that other big platform where young people were. We wanted to be in front of them, so we said we were also going to make another account on YouTube.

The strategy with that is listen, we were also going to have that foundation of user-generated content as well as NBA highlights, but we need to also figure out that third thing. That third thing is that influencer content. Like we said on Instagram, what’s really cool about Supreme is that he doesn’t just resonate well on Instagram. If you go to his Twitter right now, a lot of his content gets 25, 50, 75,000 retweets. A lot of his stuff on YouTube, he has a YouTube channel called RDC World, it gets seven or eight million views. This person is not just talented on owning Instagram. He’s great at all the platforms. We’ve used him and his content.

The biggest thing that people don’t recognize the name right away is those LeBron locker room videos that go viral, he makes those, and he’s the actor in all of those videos. We felt like hey, if we could get someone like Supreme and harness what he’s done on all these platforms, that would take our YouTube channel to the next level, where it’s a triple threat. You have the YouTube, you have the highlights and then you have the relatable content that people keep coming back for.

On if House of Highlights will continue working with influencers in the future…

He’s a Bleacher Report employee. What’s interesting is, yeah, I don’t think we just plan to stop with Supreme. We’re big on shows. We want to make a lot of shows that are done right. I think a lot of times if we want to do these shows correctly, you want some influencers that are popular, and they know what they’re doing. I would be surprised if Supreme is the only person on the YouTube channel for the next year. I would say to everyone be on the lookout.

On where he sees House of Highlights going in the future…

I think some of it we won’t be able to predict. We’ll be looking at this call three years from now and be like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t see myself doing this’. Kind of how I did three years ago where I was like, I never would’ve imagined it would’ve gotten this big. I want to be on multiple platforms. There will be HouseofHighlights.com eventually. There will be us on YouTube. I want to really make sure we do YouTube right, and then once we do YouTube right, we’ll look at other platforms. We’re also doing a Twitter live show, which should be very exciting.

Looking 18 months from now, I think at that point, we want to do events. When we look at non-stop basketball, kind of like how basketball is 24/7/365, especially during that offseason when you have all these pick-up games and all these different events, even with summer league that Bleacher Report is doing. We kind of want to make sure we nail the event space going forward and do that right. Instagram is always going to be the backbone of House of Highlights, then YouTube. Now we have the Twitter show. We kind of want to be outside facing. I don’t know if that’s the right word. We probably want to get the events thing for youth. Camps are big, but also these pick-up games and stuff like that would be fun.

On if he’s ever thought of launching a House of Highlights game to compete with HQ Trivia…

No, I haven’t. I’ll be honest. I haven’t thought about it. We just wanted to make sure we did YouTube first. Once we nail YouTube, we’ll look at everything else.

On how he sees soccer fitting into House of Highlights, with Turner acquiring UEFA Champions League rights…

It’ll fit perfectly. If you look at two of the biggest sports on Instagram, you have soccer No. 1. Look at LeBron James. I’m kind of guessing right now, but he probably has 35 million followers, but Cristiano Ronaldo has 110-120 million followers. Soccer is just the bigger sport on Instagram. What’s interesting is if you asked me a year or two ago in conversations with Doug, if we could get any other sport for highlight rights, I would’ve picked soccer before I picked the NFL.

What’s also interesting is kind of the same way that the NBA is built on personalities. Soccer and Champions League has the same situation. Neymar has more followers than LeBron James and people care about what Neymar does on the field, but they also care about what he does off the field and that’s the thing I’m most excited for. We can take those relatable moments with soccer players or a funny Ronaldo reaction and kind of nail those. You’ll see that House of Highlights formula sprinkled into soccer. That’s something I’m very excited about. I think for the posting, we’ll look at that when we get closer to it.

On favorite social follows…

LeBron goes Zero Dark 30, but I also think what’s cool about LeBron is after 2016, he just stopped caring. He took that guard down. He’s very much himself. Last summer, when he posted content on Instagram, he went bald. He was singing. It even became a little mini challenge, where we had the LeBron challenge of people impersonating him in the gym and that became a little movement of its own. I think LeBron actually is my favorite follow. On his IG stories, he’s very candid. He’s very much himself. He doesn’t really play a character.

I think another obvious one is Joel Embiid. He’s not just great on Twitter. He’s great on Instagram as well. He loves to use the word savage, so I’ll kind of go with it. He’s a savage, and I think people love that. For underrated follows, I would say one is @LeagueFits. It’s a good page of what people are wearing and the social style of the NBA. It’s gotten a little bit of attention. C.J. McCollum is also another good one that I like.

On if merchandise is a priority for House of Highlights in the near-term or long-term…

Right now, the focus is what’s going on. The NBA Finals. Making the best content for the audience and for the fan base. I think later down the line, merch will be one of the things we address, so yeah.

On advice for people who want to be a social media influencer or create an account like House of Highlights…

I would say don’t give up. Exactly what you said was right. It doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes what’s disappointing is if you see someone who has the potential and the talent. Honestly, I had some friends when I started up the House of Highlights thing, making an Instagram page. I would help grow their page, but also what happened after a few months is they would kind of just give up because they weren’t getting the response they were hoping to. They were hoping to get 100,000 followers in a month. That’s really not realistic at this point. You need to consistently grind for a long period of time. It might take six months before something pops. It might take 12 months, but you just need to keep going at it.

On advice for people who want to work in sports…

What was interesting for me is my thing was I wasn’t even planning on being here. I just kind of did what I loved, and I kind of ended up here. To those people listening, I would say do what you enjoy most. Pick a department, whether it’s social, whether it’s content, whether it’s being a producer. Pick the career choice that you love the most and be passionate about it and kind of obsess over it. The results will eventually come if you really are doing what you truly enjoy.

About Mark J. Burns

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