Like a lot of 23-year-olds, Omar Raja started an Instagram account in college because most of his friends were on Instagram.
Unlike a lot of 23-year-olds, Raja’s Instagram account was a lot more than selfies and food porn. He amassed 8.2 million followers, including NBA superstars LeBron James, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook, used the account to land his first job and helped start viral internet memes, like the “Running Man Challenge” and the “Drive-By Dunk Challenge.”
On Thanksgiving last year, James and NFL superstar Odell Beckham Jr. wished each other “Happy Thanksgiving” in the comments section of one of Raja’s videos.
“That’s usually a conversation you see over text, and it’s happening in front of like eight million people,” Raja said during an interview this week in San Francisco. “And you’re like, how is this happening?”
It’s happening because Raja is the creator of House of Highlights, the insanely popular Instagram account that publishes sports highlights with Raja’s witty commentary. The account has become a kind of digital version of SportsCenter, a place for folks to catch up on the day’s top sports moments from the games they didn’t have time (or interest) to see live.
The account got so big while Raja was still in college at the University of Central Florida that Bleacher Report, the sports site owned by Turner, acquired the account (and its creator) before Raja even graduated.
In the two years since that deal, House of Highlights has grown from 1.1 million followers to more than eight million — all with Raja posting the vast majority of the videos. Over the past 30 days, House of Highlights has done more video views on Instagram (662 million) than the official ESPN (206 million) and SportsCenter (316 million) accounts combined, according to social media analytics company CrowdTangle. House of Highlights’ interaction rate — the percentage of people who see a post that also interact with it — was higher than that of mega stars Kim Kardashian and Cristiano Ronaldo in that same time period.
Adding to the appeal is the fact that NBA stars like James and Curry, whose dunks and jumpers are frequently featured on the account, are also followers.
“I think players see that and are like, ‘Oh my God, LeBron liked my post,’” Raja said. “It’s different from when you watch SportsCenter. You don’t know who’s watching with you.”
Recode interviewed Raja and Doug Bernstein, House of Highlights’ GM and the exec who found and acquired the account two years ago, to learn how you build a sports brand on Instagram. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
You started this account in college. How did that happen?
Omar Raja: I was a die-hard Miami Heat fan. I had posters all over my wall. And then when LeBron ended up leaving, [I was] kind of heartbroken and depressed. It’s like going through a breakup and you’re starting to go back through old photos and videos. There were some videos that I used to share with friends, and I didn’t know where to find [them]. I would go crazy on the Google searches with advanced search and I would never be able to find those moments. So I said, all right, I’m going to start doing them myself.
Why did you start on Instagram instead of Facebook or YouTube or Twitter?
Raja: I was in a car going to a mall and I was actually on Twitter at the time, but all the other four people in the car were on Instagram. I was really late to the party. I was like, “Okay, now I’m going to make an Instagram account.” So that was around that same time [LeBron left]. It was kind of an addicting feeling, and it kind of felt like pure entertainment. Now I call it “young people’s television.” We go there to see what’s happening, to be entertained.
So you started posting NBA highlights. Sports rights are usually heavily protected. Did you have permission to post the stuff you were posting?
Raja: I was clueless to all that stuff. It’s kind of like the Wild, Wild West in a way. Someone asked someone at the NBA about it at one of their events. “Why don’t you guys pull [down] the YouTube stuff?” They said, “Well, highlights are marketing.” I think even now you see on Twitter, there are a lot of people that run NBA highlights and the NBA never really gives them any issues. So I kind of felt like, hey, this is really just helping promote their brand, and if an issue comes of it, an issue comes of it.
At what point did you realize you were onto something special?
Raja: I think once you hit like 500,000 followers. That’s the moment where you’re like, “Holy shit.” And then also like when celebrities follow, right? So the first big one was Snoop Dogg. I ran out of my room. I called my dad. “Dad, do you know who Snoop Dogg is?” He’s like, “Of course.” I was like, “He just followed House of Highlights!” So that one was cool. So Snoop Dogg follows and celebrities start following, and they don’t just follow. They “Like” and engage with this stuff.
So you’re still in college at this point. How did you end up selling to Bleacher Report?
Doug Bernstein: Bleacher Report has always kind of been the up-and-comer to ESPN. I think we’ve made incredible progress to kind of catch ESPN, especially in the digital space. But I had reached the point where we had been at it for maybe six or seven years, where I was starting to get nervous and anxious. Who was the startup that would come up to us? Who was the one that could replace us? We had a great millennial audience, but who was dominating with 12- to 24-[year-olds]? That’s where House of Highlights came in.
Raja: When I first got the email I screen-shotted it and sent it to my friends to brag. I was a Bleacher Report fan.
How did Bleacher Report respond to your idea to buy some college kid’s Instagram account?
Bernstein: There were definitely a fair amount of people internally that were very confused by it. I think the finance team rightfully asked some questions and just kind of didn’t understand why we would buy, you know — essentially it was a brand. Then they saw the vision and the value that House of Highlights was going to provide, and we were able to work it through.
What convinced you House of Highlights was any different from other highlight accounts?
Bernstein: The things that stood out to me first were, one, his voice. I thought it was one of the funniest voices. The captions, I thought, were just really, really genuinely funny. The second thing was the content selection. It’s really hard to find content that’s always going to resonate. I kept saying, where is this user generated content coming from? I couldn’t figure it out.
So in addition to NBA highlights you were also posting funny sports clips from fans and followers?
Raja: So there was a big dependence on UGC. It’s easy to say now like, “Oh yeah, it’s a cool video of someone doing something outside in their backyard or in front of the house.” But when you think about like what UGC looks like, it’s obviously unpolished, raw. A lot of our stuff is filmed on iPhones and that’s the way we would prefer it. Back like three, four years ago, no one was running UGC in the same way that I do. I had opened up my DMs [private messages] and I would look every single day, still do, and people would just know that, hey, if I do something cool in my backyard, if I have a funny moment where I record something, to send it to House of Highlights.
You still get a lot of stuff just sent to you?
Raja: I probably get like 500 DMs a day. [I watch] every single one. Now, like 50 of them are weird selfies. It takes a few hours to kind of just go through it all.
So running an Instagram account is a full-time job?
Raja: I post in movie theaters, lunches, dinners. If I’m going to be in a movie theater at eight o’clock, then it’s tough. I’ve literally cut up clips in a movie before. So I [usually] have the computer where I’m actively cutting [clips]. Then there’s a TV where you can watch like four games on one TV, and I have another TV [for more games]. So it’s like six games at once. I haven’t had a day off in four years.
Bernstein: As soon as he picked up the phone [during the acquisition talks] he was like, “Just so you know, if a trade or free agency thing happens, I’m going to have to hang up on you.” Then two minutes into the call, he was like, “Hold on, something just broke, I’ll call you back.” I immediately was like, “Oh, this is the guy.” Anybody that’s so dedicated to that work that everything else would be put on pause — immediately when that happened I was like, this is something really cool.
Right now the account is pretty NBA-dominated. Do you plan to do other sports?
Raja: So we’re going to do March Madness [college basketball]. We did college football. We did the World Series and most of the MLB playoffs.
Bernstein: I think a big thing is the Champions League [global soccer]. Turner is getting rights to Champions League. That’s something that we’re really excited to get access to.
You’ve been credited with starting some pretty good internet memes, too. Like the Drive-By Dunk Challenge. How’d that happen?
Bernstein: I’ve been in this space for a really, really long time and I had never seen anything that has the same ability that House of Highlights does to take these moments and then turn them into movements. It has the ability to influence behavior. It shapes what people are doing in the real world and creates these narratives.
Raja: The Running Man Challenge, those guys ended up on “Ellen” and everything and I said to myself, “Okay, like there’s no way I started this.” So I DM’d the guy, I was like, “Hey, was I the first person that posted and kind of started [this]?” He’s like, “Yeah, you kind of changed everything.” Then we had the Drive-By Dunk Challenge. That one was cool because I texted Doug, “This is the next big thing.” We posted it, it went super viral. That one was crazy. I got hundreds of DMs.
Does the account bring in any money?
Bernstein: There are three types of ways in which we monetize the account. One is a distribution of a company’s assets. [We] run their commercial. The second way is [sponsorships]. Then the third is branded content. So that’s where we went out and worked together with the brand to create original assets.
What happens next? You just launched a YouTube page. Will you start Twitter and Facebook pages too?
Bernstein: Being celebratory and being inclusive are two of the things that are really, really important for us. One of the nice things about Instagram is the comment section tends to be a little friendlier. There’s a real ability to build a community.
Raja: Instagram is where the young people are at. That’s what [people] my age are on. The reason we started on YouTube rather than Twitter or Facebook was because ... that’s the only other place where young people are at.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.