On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, House of Highlights creator Omar Raja talks with Recode’s Kurt Wagner about how he built his sports-focused Instagram account into a social media juggernaut.
You can read a write-up of the interview here or listen to the whole thing in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Kurt Wagner: I am here in San Francisco with Omar Raja, who is the creator and ... I guess that’s the same thing as the founder of House of Highlights.
Omar Raja: Thank you for having me.
Thank you for being here, man. House of Highlights, for those who don’t know ... I’m going to do my best to give it a quick 10-second description and then I want you to correct me and swoop in.
Instagram account. Sports highlights for young people, in particular. Basically, I think of it as, I don’t necessarily go watch SportsCenter the way I used to. I’m a big sports fan, but I will go on Instagram. You’ll have the highlights of the day. You’ll have a lot of user-generated stuff, but I think of it as SportsCenter 2.0. Hit me with your real description.
I think highlights is correct, right? But I think the way I came in when I started the account, too, was the traditional highlight, which was LeBron James dunking a basketball, isn’t always ... Wasn’t relevant. I think what’s relevant for us a lot of times now, especially, is when LeBron actually makes a weird face and he’s reacting to something or a fan makes a weird face and is reacting to something. I think the moments that matter often are not all the time those dunks or those crossovers or those assists. It’s the moments that go unnoticed by the human eye or by most people. What I’m focusing on is finding moments that stick out to me that are funny and relatable.
Yeah. You do a really good job of finding the stuff that might happen during a commercial break or again, LeBron dunks. While most people are watching him run down the court, the camera actually catches the bench doing something crazy.
How much time do you actually spend watching the stuff that is not the dunk?
It depends. There was a fight I think this season with the Wizards and the Warriors, right? When something like that happens, I have to watch it 10 times. That three-four minute saga, I’m watching the refs, I’m watching different players, I’m watching the bench, I’m watching fans.
What ended up happening is there was one video with a fan yelling at another ... I believe Bradley Beal. Then there was Bradley Beal being involved in the scuffle in another way. Then there was a ref who was like ... Usually when there’s a fight, a ref gets in there and breaks everything up. One of the refs was just like, “I’m not getting in there.” He was just standing there, giving a face like, “I don’t really care about this. I’m going to let them fight it out.” Those were the four or five moments that I hit in just one little highlight.
How long did that take you?
25 minutes. 30 minutes.
It’s not too bad.
Here’s what we need to remember. That’s one game and there’s probably eight other games going on at that moment. I’m spending 30 minutes on a three-minute little scuffle when I need to be focusing on every little game that’s been going on.
Right. Okay. We’re going to get to all that because there’s a whole element of this ... House of Highlights is now part of Bleacher Report. Bleacher Report is owned by Turner. As a result, you have access to a lot of this stuff, which we’re going to get to. I want to take a step back first and come across how this came together, because you invented or created House of Highlights when you were in college. You’re 24, I think you said.
This is at a stage in your career ... This is the very beginning of your career. This is all you’ve ever done.
I wasn’t expecting to be here at all.
Yeah. Walk us through it. How does House of Highlights become a thing to begin with?
LeBron leaves the Heat and goes to the Cavaliers in July of 2014. I was a diehard sports fan.
You’re from Florida?
I’m from Miami.
With that team too, when LeBron made the decision to come to Miami, that was the most hated team in the world. It was the weird bunker mentality, where it’s us against the world. Obviously, it’s sports. Nothing serious. You would see me reacting to what any sports journalist is saying bad about the Heat. That became Heat Twitter and all that stuff. When you’re so passionate about a team, you really felt that, LeBron leaving. Those next three-four weeks were like a breakup, where I’m looking for ... I’m just thinking about the good times, not the bad times.
LeBron broke your heart.
Yeah, LeBron broke my heart. I’m over it now, thankfully, but he did at that time. I’m going back and looking at moments that I cared about. What’s kind of sucked is some of the stuff that stuck out to me was him yelling at Mario Chalmers or Mario Chalmers yelling at him or Mario Chalmers saying something to Dwyane Wade. Those moments that, it wasn’t the dunk. It wasn’t the game-winning shot. It was funny, gif-able moments that I call them, where it’s like, if you go to your iMessage right now and you click “gif” and you put in “NBA,” a lot of those moments are the ones that I found. That was stuff that I cared about even before House of Highlights started.
The take was, “Hey, these are moments that I’m looking for and I’m trying to share with my friends to reminisce about this historic team. How come I can’t find them?” I went to YouTube, I went to Twitter, I went to Vine. There was nothing. I went to Instagram. There was nothing. I said, “You know what? I’m going to try to do it.” I thought at max, we would be at 100,000 followers, 200,000 followers. Now we’re almost at 10 million, which is just insane.
It’s kind of crazy. Even that initial goal ... When I start an Instagram account, I’m like, “Man, I hope 100 friends follow me.” Right? Your goal, even then you were saying, “Oh, I think we could make this 100,000.”
Yeah. I think what happened was I started early on the internet, I guess. When YouTube first came out, I was big on YouTube. For me, I had a good understanding of how these things work and evolve over time. I used to make YouTube videos. There were some about sports, some about video games. I think one was even me breaking down the end of “The Dark Knight Rises.” I was trying to do a little bit of everything because I was interested in all of it.
When I did the whole YouTube thing, I wouldn’t say I was successful, but I made a lot of mistakes, so I learned how communities work and how social media works and how different video works. When I went into Instagram, I was like, “I’m going to use the mistakes that I learned over at YouTube and apply them to Instagram.”
Got it. You had a sense of how viral content could work online.
Absolutely. The two platforms were very different too, because Instagram was just square at the time. It was just 15 seconds. Captions matter a lot more on Instagram than they would on YouTube. But yeah, some of the learnings of the internet, you can say, I learned on YouTube.
Why did you ultimately go with Instagram? Because that is — well, I’ll be interested to hear what you think. As a follower of the account, I think the fact that it’s on Instagram and showing up in my feed versus having to maybe seek it out on YouTube is pretty huge. Why did you choose Instagram over YouTube? Did that basically help you get to where you’re at?
Part of it was luck because I was with my friends a few months earlier and I was super late to the Instagram game, for whatever reason. I don’t know why. We were in a car. I noticed that every single person in the car had an Instagram account and I was the only one. In the car, I made an Instagram account. I’m like, “I’m following all you guys.” I was addicted to Instagram at that time. Also two months in, three months in, there was a reason I was addicted, right? It felt like the young person’s television. That’s what I call it.
You go to the “Explore” page and you just keep going down. There’s continuous content, over and over and over again. For me, it wasn’t just a way to connect with my friends and see what they’re up to, but it was like, “Hey, there’s endless content here. It belongs and fits here.”
If we scroll back far enough, are we going to see the LeBron gif and the Omar selfie right next to each other?
Were you ever posting what normal people post or were you always doing sports?
I had two separate accounts. There was House of Highlights and then there was my personal account.
What was interesting is, I stopped using the personal account for three or four years and I’ve started using it up again now because I was just so invested in House of Highlights. It was the only thing I could think about. I’d be in the shower and I’d be thinking about different ways to tweak the captions and tweak video. It was an addiction.
For three, four years. Still is to this day.
Yeah. I know you work a ton. It’s college. You make this account. You’re heartbroken about LeBron.
What was the first realization you had that, “Oh, this is actually something that is pretty big”?
That next six months. There was consistency. You get 100,000 followers. That sounds like a lot to a lot of people, but because I was on YouTube so much, I’m so used to seeing people with millions of subscribers. For me, at first, I didn’t really realize until you take a step back and you’re like, “Oh, wow. We have 500,000 followers. I just got 100,000 ‘Likes’ on a video.” People would kill for that.
Right. How did you get there, by the way? Were you one of those people posting 50 hashtags?
How do you get even from zero to 10,000, nevermind 100,000?
Yes, let’s talk about that. I think when I looked at other Instagram accounts too, I think Instagram is different than Twitter. Twitter, you can tweet a lot and people won’t hate you. They might be a little bit annoyed, but for Instagram, you have to be very selective with content, especially when you think about in 2014, there wasn’t that many brand accounts, probably. The only posts you would see is of friends. It would be stuff you cared about. My goal in the beginning was, “I cannot have any piece of content waste your time.” The content has to be great. It can’t be good. It has to be really, really good.
You tinker with that. You try to get to a level ... You show some friends. Like, “Rate these clips. What’s the one that you would have been mad that you missed out on?” You work on that. A lot of it now still to this day is a gut ... Just being like, “I can feel this out. I know this is going to work.” The main thing for me was, “Hey, I’m not going to post 20 things a day or do 20 hashtags. I’m just going to post five great things.” What happens is you post those five great things. You have zero followers. The first thing you do is you follow your friends. It gets you 150 followers, 200 followers.
I’m sure I did some hashtags. It’s been four years. I don’t think I ever spammed it. It would probably be #NBA #LeBron or whoever it related to. Then since the content is good, people tag their friends and they tag their friends and then they tag their friends and they tag their friends. I would focus on the comments section. Obviously, you care about people’s feedback, but I’m like, “They tagged three friends.” That’s what you were looking for in the comments section is, “Are they spreading this message?”
It happened a lot faster than I thought. Six months in, we were at I think 500,000 followers or maybe 300, 400. We started August 2014. I know by July of 2015, we probably had close to a million.
Yeah. You’re known. The account is kind of a big deal in the sports world, in part because the athletes themselves follow you. It’s not uncommon to see either an NBA guy jump into the comments or at least see, “Hey, LeBron liked this video,” or whatever. Do you remember who the first celebrities were and at what stage were you at when all of a sudden “important” people on social media started noticing you?
Early 2015 with Snoop Dogg. I remember exactly where I was. I was in my townhouse in Orlando. I see that Snoop Dogg re-posted something. I’m like, “That’s interesting. He re-posted this. Let me checked if he follows the account.” Then I searched House of Highlights and he’s following the account. The first thing I did is I ran outside for whatever reason. I’m like, “I need to call my dad.” I don’t know why I needed to call my dad outside, but that’s what we were doing at that point.
I was like, “Dad, do you know who Snoop Dogg is?” He was like, “Of course I know who Snoop Dogg is.” I’m like, “Yeah, he just followed House of Highlights.” He was like, “Oh, that’s actually really impressive.” That was the first main one. I felt like a lot of NBA players jumped on the ship around 2016. Early 2016. It felt like LeBron followed and then everyone followed after that.
Interesting. Do you DM with any of those guys? Or I guess it’s not called DM on Instagram.
No, it is DM.
Is it called DM?
Yeah, it’s DM.
I should know that. Okay. Do you DM with those guys?
Yeah. I think one thing that’s interesting and not something that I ever expected is, a lot of guys send in DMs of content they want posted. Listen, 80 percent of stuff that they’re in and they’re involved in that they want posted, whether it’s them working out or whether it’s a cool dunk they had ... I think what’s also been interesting is some guys just send in cool clips that they see on the internet and they want to see on House of Highlights.
These are professional athletes?
I think another thing was I thought ... You would think on paper it’s the 13th guy on the bench. It’s usually only All Stars or max players, which is just insane to me.
That is crazy. You see these guys and how they kind of curate their lives on social, right? I guess we all do that. It’s not unique to an NBA player, but it is kind of surprising or funny to hear that those are the types of guys who are reaching out to you.
Yeah. I think a little bit is, when we talk about that, “@KingJames liked your post,” I think there is that social currency. When you send in a clip and you’re hoping that LeBron likes it or LeBron sees it.
Just having that little bragging thing, even if you’re an athlete. Let’s say you’re a young ... Like a D’Angelo Russell or a Devin Booker. Your highlight gets posted and @KingJames likes it, that has to feel really, really good.
I think that plays a big role in why a lot of these young guys, and some of them are a little bit older too, are sending in clips.
I want to talk a little bit about the Bleacher Report acquisition. So you’re in college ...
You create this account. You get a million followers or whatever, you gotta be feeling pretty good. Snoop Dogg is paying attention to you.
How does Bleacher Report come about?
They emailed me.
So they emailed me in summer of 2015. First thing I did was screenshot that email and send it to my group chat and I bragged about it for a good hour.
I didn’t even respond to the email for an hour. I was just bragging about it and everyone was freaking out. I wish I still had screen grabs of that text conversation because I probably would be looking back at it and just laughing.
Yeah, because I imagine that must mean that this is the first time that someone has shown interest in buying the account or was it just because Bleacher Report ...
No, that was just like, “Let’s talk.” that one was very much like, “Hey, let’s just talk on the phone about what you’re doing, what you’re up to. We’re fans of the account.” And I was just super excited about that.
I followed them religiously on Twitter. I had them on notifications. I had the app. Those same friends that I sent them to are the ones that told me to download the app because they’re so quick with news. So, rest in peace, Team String, that’s what it used to be called. We were just freaking out. We were just freaking out at that point.
And so, they say, “Hey we want to talk.” At that stage, are you thinking like, “Oh I know what ‘talk’ means.” I’m thinking to myself, when I was in college, I would have had absolutely no idea how this process works. I imagine that’s kinda where you were coming from. What happened after that?
Exactly. I thought maybe they’d be interesting in talking about like a job, I thought at max. I didn’t think they would have much interest in House of Highlights just because it was so different and unique. I thought they’d be like, “Hey, you’re kinda good at social, just come and do what we do and figure that out.”
But, shout out to Doug Bernstein, he’s currently the GM of House of Highlights, and he was just a fan from the jump and kinda understood me and kinda understood where I was coming from, especially with sports. So he said, “Hey man, we love what you’re doing and we want you to keep doing what you’ve been doing.” That was really important to me. Like I remember, I was kinda like, “My worry is that if we did an acquisition I’d have to change up and be acting different,” and I was really scared of that.
I think we talked about that three, four times where he was like, “No, I’m telling you. I promise you. You’re just gonna keep doing what you’ve been doing.”
And to his credit, he kept his promise.
And now as part of Turner, you have all kinds of access. We were talking very early on about being able to watch that game from all the different angles and get the stuff that maybe happens during commercial break.
But before you didn’t have, like you weren’t a rights holder ...
Did you ever get called by ESPN or Fox Sports?
Was anyone like, “Yo, dude, you can’t post this stuff?”
No, I don’t know why, I’ll be honest, but I think a big part of it was like, I never really touched the NFL. I don’t think I ... definitely didn’t touch baseball because I know ...
They’re stingy about that.
They were at that time. I think they’ve lightened up a little bit. I think it’s interesting now, is that a lot of those leagues that were very ... they had no interest in other accounts posting their highlights. The NFL and the MLB now, they kinda send us clips sometimes and they’re like, “Hey, you know, if you wanna post this clip you can do it for free, just credit us.” Because they understand that it’s kinda marketing for their sport and that’s what Adam Silver’s been saying since the jump. Like, “As long as you’re not making the game look bad in any way, we view highlights as marketing.” So I kinda took that approach and was like, “Okay, I’m good to go.”
But I think — and I was also in college I didn’t completely understand rights and all that stuff — but when we were getting closer to 2015 and I would look more into it I was like, “Oh, okay, I need to figure this out.”
Right. I imagine you’re very conscious of it now being part of Bleacher and part of Turner, right?
So, I know you have NBA stuff. I feel like the feed is almost, I’m making this up, 80 percent NBA or basketball related? How conscious are you of that?
It depends on the season. So like, when it’s August, September, when there’s that period where there’s not much NBA, we have college football rights.
We have MLB playoff rights. So kinda around that time, I would say there’s a little transition where maybe it’s not as much, but the NBA’s 24/7. Like obviously, we had the draft.
Then we have free agency where things kinda go crazy and then summer league and then there’s NBA workouts and because these guys are personalities and people care about what they’re doing 24/7. Like LeBron goes on vacation, he jumps off a cliff and that becomes like a million-view video, easy.
So what happens in late July, August is also stuff like pick-up games and stuff like that.
So walk me through, I want to know how this stuff comes together. So LeBron, first he announces he’s going to the Lakers. And you’re a Lebron guy, so I guess congrats? I don’t know.
No, I mean, I didn’t care. I would have loved if he came back to Miami! Or, I live in New York now so it would have been nice if he came to the Knicks.
My dad told me to hate on the Knicks when I was like 5 years old. That was the first team I was told to hate on, but since I live in New York now, I’m all cool with it.
My colleague Jason Del Rey is a huge Knicks fan, so he’ll love to hear that.
Okay, so LeBron’s on vacation, he’s jumping into the water, I saw the clip, you guys posted it. How do you get that clip, number one? And two, walk me through, he signs with the Lakers. That’s a monumental sports story.
Are you literally dropping everything you’re doing and rushing to the laptop to post about that? Or how do you handle news?
Yeah, what was interesting, especially about the LeBron one, was I wasn’t expecting a decision on July first because I think the last decision was on July 10th ...
When he announced a few years ago?
Yup. And then the first one to Miami was July eighth, I believe. So I felt like I had seven, eight days to kinda figure out exactly what I wanted to do, but I didn’t. And it was a Sunday night. I was watching “The Office” on Netflix. 8:08, got a notification that he is signing a four-year deal with the Lakers.
Immediately run to my table, open the laptop and I’m trying to figure out a lot of things at once because I didn’t completely expect a decision so quickly.
The Lakers situation wasn’t that surprising, but first thing we posted was him and Kobe, because there’s a history of those two and there’s kind of a rivalry and it’s interesting to kinda see how they’ve always interacted with each other, but the fans, the LeBron and Kobe fans kinda interact a different way. So that one was ... we do the first post to announce that he’s signing with the Lakers.
You get a notification at 8:08, at what time are you actually posting first thing?
Quick, quick, quick.
That’s crazy, because as a journalist, we feel like we gotta be on top of the news. You have to be, you feel like you’re on top of the news.
Yeah, same way. But also like, it was free agency and it’s also LeBron James.
Sure, that’s a big one.
So you really wanna make sure you get that one right.
And then the next thing you go is with the cool image of him with the Lakers jersey and then you do different reactions, right? Cleveland’s gonna have a reaction to it. Los Angeles fans are gonna have a reaction to it, different people in the western conference are gonna have a reaction to that. So I’m trying to put myself in their shoes and make videos that kinda represent what they’re reacting to.
Yeah, is a lot of that sent to you? How much of that do you have cued up and do you have just like a file folder on ...
I have a Rolodex of just like ... because I’ve done it for so long.
10,000 posts, or maybe it’s even 12,000 posts at this point.
Where I’ve seen so much that I can be like, “Oh yeah, this makes sense.” Like DeMarcus Cousins shocks the world and says he’s going to the Warriors. I wasn’t expecting that at all.
Right? You really couldn’t plan for that in any way, but what was interesting is, my favorite DeMarcus Cousins video of all time is when he’s shooting with Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, and he says he’s the “third splash brother.” I had that video saved on my phone for like three years and I was like, that was the first thing I thought of when he announced the decision.
Were you like, “Oh my God, this finally pays off that I was using valuable phone storage for this random video?”
What was interesting, too, is I posted and then you see everybody else jump on it and I was like, “No, I had that video for three years. I know I was definitely the first one to that.” And then also, just because I’ve been posting so much and I’m familiar with everything, my hand’s in the dirt every day like — I know that him and Kevin Durant and Draymond [Green] were all yelling at each other earlier this year. So it’s interesting to look at that video now and be like, “Oh my God, they’re actually teammates!”
He had one video where he said, “F Golden State.”
Right there in the middle of the game and then you kinda want to make sure that you relate to everybody.
Because people feel a certain way about DeMarcus Cousins going to the Warriors. So I had LeBron’s reaction where he’s like, just sad.
I had most people’s reactions, where they’re just incredibly angry. And that was the one — we had 12, 13 posts reacting to DeMarcus Cousins. I think there was one submission that someone sent us where it was someone just burning the NBA logo.
Yeah, I saw that.
Just because they were just so angry at the time.
That was the only one. Then when we talk about NBA players commenting and being a part of that community, J.R. Smith’s comments, I believe he commented like, “Shake my head.”
And that started a whole ’nother controversy where we’re like, “Okay, even NBA players are like, this is enough.”
So sports are incredibly polarizing, and fan bases, you’re gonna alienate just by LeBron’s going to the Lakers. Some people are gonna be happy, some people are gonna be sad, but you have a unique thing where you’re also posting about these professional athletes who are actually paying attention. Do you ever get pushback from those guys? Like if you show LeBron posterizing Kevin Durant ...
... this is probably a terrible example, maybe those two aren’t the right two to say, but if you have one player who looks bad in a video, are you hearing from that player? Are people giving you a hard time because you make them look bad on the internet?
You know, what’s interesting, too, is because now they’ve sent some clips in and we’re in New York, so many players in New York and you kinda run into them. What was interesting is like, “Hey, I’ve met this person, I kinda know this person. I don’t want to offend them in any way,” but at the end of the day you’re like, “This is the business and this is relevant content.”
Like I can’t ... I remember what it was like when I was in college and I was ... I didn’t know what I was gonna do, honestly. Like even if this thing never came up I’d probably be getting my master’s right now. I really had no idea, so I kinda think back to that old time when I was 20 years old and I would just kill for this job and I don’t want to let that Omar down and be like, “Oh, he’s biased now and he kinda sold out.” So honestly, I post everything.
There’s no real bias there. And I’ll be honest, one thing that’s kinda surprised me is I’ve never really gotten flack for it at all.
Really? It’s funny, I just would have assumed, people are very sensitive about their image and especially like when they go on a popular service like yours or a popular account like yours.
Do fans get mad at you?
Oh, the thing is, sports are so polarizing.
I do think I get treated a little bit better than most accounts because like, everyone’s gonna get joked on and everyone’s gonna have highlights where their favorite player gets dunked on. There’s nothing you can control, but sure, like sports is the one time where you can get a little emotional. Some people, it’s their escape, so they might be in a mood one day.
Like, “Hey, why are you posting this?” But it’s not a big deal.
I feel like, and maybe it’s just because it’s summertime and so there’s not NBA in season, but I feel like I’ve noticed a lot of user-generated content over the last couple weeks. Walk us through, because a lot, we’ve been talking so far about either professional highlights or stuff sent to you from actual players. But you’re posting stuff from Joe Shmoe, internet guy, right?
So, how do you dig through all that at this point? How much do you get sent and what kind of time does that take?
We get about 500 DMs a day.
That in itself takes two, three hours to go through where it’s like everything.
And this is you?
Mm-hmm. So, there’s another guy. I used to do it every single day for three and a half years. Now there’s another guy named Drew, Drew Corrigan. He helps out. And me and him kinda sit down together and we kinda figure it out. Stuff that kinda sticks out to us, we share it to each other and we kinda decide, and a lot of that is just gut and sensibility and kinda just since you’re just so experienced and you kinda know what works.
You kinda decide, “Okay, this is something that’s funny or this is something that’s relatable or this is something that will be popular with people.” What’s interesting is when we talk about submissions, it’s not just like what you’re doing in your backyard. Sometimes it’s people just doing all-out skits.
Where they’re making complete jokes. Like we had one where how bandwagon fans reacted to DeMarcus Cousins signing. So, the guy’s wearing a shirt. Then he finds out LeBron is signing. He puts on a Lakers jersey. Then he gets a notification the next day that DeMarcus Cousins is signing, so he takes off his Lakers jersey, and then all of a sudden, a Golden State jersey is right underneath.
It’s completely different content that’s actually been posted on these types of media accounts in the past decade, 20 years, whatever you want to call it. That’s what’s been fun is because it’s completely different from what it’s usually been.
How did the rights work for that stuff? If someone voluntarily sends you something, is that just like, “Okay. We take this as permission to use it”? Do you have to get people to sign? How does that work?
I can read it out to you if you want me to. It’s like, “Hey, do you own this video? If so, do we have permission to post this content natively on all Bleacher Report accounts and the House of Highlights account if we credit you?”
There you go.
They say yes.
It’s as if you have said that once or twice before.
I have said that probably like 2,000 times.
Just a few.
The last time you and I spoke, I think it was Presidents’ Day or maybe the day after? We were in your office and there was no one there. Now we’re the day after Fourth of July. You’re in our office and there’s no one here. You work all the time. Have you taken a vacation yet?
No. I haven’t taken a day off in four years.
How much longer can you do this?
You know what’s interesting is, I think in the beginning of this year, I was getting burnt out. Then somehow, some way, I ran into — Kobe was promoting his ... What’s that thing he won the Oscar for? His animated thing, called “Dear Basketball.”
About his retirement.
Yeah. What was interesting is he was very nice. I remember I was really burnt out at that point. I was like, “Kobe, when does the grind stop?” He says, “Not until you’re six feet under.” Then we talked about that topic for an extra two minutes, where he’s like, “I still work as hard as I do now than when I was in the league.” It was like a heart-to-heart moment. That would just re-energize me. Now I’m good.
Not many people get a heart-to-heart from Kobe Bryant.
I was never expecting that. You know what’s crazy too is I was looking at a tweet in 2016 when I was ... It was right after the Cavs won the Championship. I tweeted, “Going to New York City tomorrow.” One of my friends jokingly said, “Well, go recruit Melo to Miami.” Then what’s interesting is, a year later, I know Carmelo Anthony. I was looking at that tweet and I was like, “I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far.” I don’t know how in the world this has all happened. I’m super grateful for that.
You still get starstruck, or at the very least, you’re still aware of the fact that ...
No. I’m like, “How did we get there?” I don’t understand how this all happened.
Is there one moment that you can think of that’s like, okay, this was the most eye-opening experience you’ve had since you’ve started this whole thing?
Kobe was cool. I think the second one was Dwyane Wade. I was in All Star in Los Angeles and I got to meet Dwyane Wade.
He was obviously a Heat player forever, or still is now.
Yeah. He had just gotten traded back to Miami.
I had said to him, I was like, “Man, if it wasn’t for you, there is no way there’s House of Highlights.” He’s like, “You started House of Highlights because of me?” He’s like, “Now you’ve got the whole damn league following you.” That was a moment that I’ll probably remember forever.
That’s pretty cool.
Do you still brag with your friends? When you look back on the Bleacher Report thing, that was pretty minor compared to getting a pep talk from Kobe Bryant.
No, Bleacher Report is pretty legit. That was a big moment for me.
Your bosses are listening.
Yeah. I think Kobe is one that’s definitely the coolest because especially for me is I was such a LeBron guy. I didn’t hate Kobe, but I was more of a LeBron guy than a Kobe guy. I know all my friends that are Kobe fans. I’m like, “Hey, I got to meet your guy. How does that make you feel?” I wasn’t even ever a Kobe guy, but I get to meet him.
That’s a nice humble brag right there. Okay. I want to talk business. You guys have turned this into a ... You make money from this account. It started as a cool account, a lot of followers, but you’ve actually turned it into something. How do you make money? How involved are you versus is that something the Bleacher Report team handles for you or are you helping make money?
No. We have an invitation-only strategy, where three, four of us get together and we look at every single brand. We handpick the brands that we want to work with. We reach out to them through our sales team and then figure it out from there.
When you say you want to work with them, how does it work? I remember this because you and I have spoken before, but I think there were three ways you make money. You either run someone’s commercial for them, they can sponsor something you’re already running, or you do branded content.
Right? Are those the three ways you’re still doing it?
Yep. I think what’s interesting is, one thing that we’ve been trying to change is when you look at ads ... When you look at a radio ad, a radio ad doesn’t really work in television. A television ad doesn’t really work on Instagram. I think that’s one thing that we’ve been trying to change is like, we have different cuts for different versions of social media, whether we’re posting on YouTube, whether we’re posting on Instagram. We’re going to soon start on Twitter. It’s important to differentiate for each social media. That’s kind of the one thing that we’ve been working with brands on and improving on.
I think the best one that we’ve done recently is with Under Armour. I think mostly when you do sponsored content, there’s ... It’s polished. It’s not really raw or unpolished. I think one thing that we’ve done is we want everything to feel very viral because when you go down your Instagram feed, whether it’s story, whether it’s timeline, everything is recorded on a phone. We want that same content to feel very natural to Instagram. So everything is shot on an iPhone or a Samsung. It’s meant to feel very viral and authentic.
Right. That’s what the UGC especially that you post ... It feels like something a friend might send me.
Were you nervous at all when you first started doing the ad stuff? Were you afraid you were going to piss off your followers? Was this considered a selling-out kind of thing? It’s business, right?
Of course. I think the one thing that I was obsessed over ... When we talk about how House of Highlights started, it was always about posting good content. My thing is, when we talk about invitation-only, we want to make sure that we’re making good content. If the content is good, no one is going to care. When I’m talking about the Under Armour video, it was high school players battling one another or whatever. It was like a tug-of-war type of situation. That video has three-and-a-half million views. It was really good content. There isn’t “sponsored content.” It’s either bad content or good content. That’s another way I look at it. As long as it fits in that bucket of good content, you hit the nail.
We’ve been talking this whole time about Instagram, which is how this thing got started, but you’re expanding.
I know you have a YouTube channel, which I think you started around the time I first chatted with you.
February. Okay. You have a Twitter account. I know because we used it this morning I think to tweet at you. How important are these new channels? I imagine Instagram is still the core for you, but how important is it to expand the brand to new things? Or are these experiments?
No. When we talk about House of Highlights, we don’t want to just be an Instagram page. We’re trying to build a legitimate brand. YouTube is one that we found that, it’s a place where young people are at. What’s interesting about House of Highlights is the majority of the audience is under 24. We want to be where young people are at. We went to YouTube. We’ve had success with it. I believe we’re at 300,000 subscribers. The view count on that is very good too because with YouTube you don’t have to just have subscribers to get views. If you have good content, people can search for it and they can find it naturally.
Then what’s cool also is Twitter. We’re doing a Twitter show. That’s going to launch at the end of this year, where we’re going to have athletes come in and curate House of Highlights for me. I’m going to let them be Omar or Drew for the night. We’re going to see how they do. We’re going to have a whole bunch of other stuff during that 90-minute, 75-minute episode, but that’s something I’m really looking forward to.
Are you involved then with ... You’re running Instagram. Are you also running YouTube? Are you running Twitter?
I have say in it, for sure. I think with YouTube, we hired two guys. They do a really, really good job. I think what’s interesting is I always look for finding the best people. These are the two guys that were really good at highlights over at YouTube. We hit them up and said, “Hey, are you even interested?” They said, “Yeah, of course. We know House of Highlights. We love House of Highlights.” What was cool is since those guys are kind of young too, people are just familiar with House of Highlights at this point that they get excited about the opportunity.
Do you worry in that sense ... So much of this is tied to you, right? Your voice. The highlights are things that you would care about. All of a sudden, you bring other people in. You can’t pick every single thing for five different channels, but how do you get comfortable? Does it make you nervous to hand over the reins to someone else?
Yeah. It was nerve-racking last fall, when I first handed it over to Drew. What was interesting is I had known Drew for a year and the way we talked ... When you just keep talking to people and understand their sensibilities and you watch how they post on social. I was like, “There’s something here. Listen, he’s not going to be Omar. I want him to be Drew.” I think one thing that we’re very open about in the comment section now is, “Hey, Drew posts stuff.” We joked around that Drew fell asleep when LeBron announced his decision and that comment itself got 10,000 likes.
Everyone was going onto his Instagram and saying, “Drew, wake up. Drew, wake up. LeBron is on the Lakers.” You think about that. That comments gets 10,000 likes or 15,000 likes. Brands are killing for that on their posts. We’re getting that in our comment section.
Yeah. What about things like Instagram TV? Have you started to dabble with that at all?
I messed around on my personal page with an old video that I had. I think it’s a little early for IGTV right now. I want to see more people adopt it right now. I think I have some legitimate good ideas that would work for it right now, but I’m not sure people are clicking on it right now and going through their IGTV feed.
Yeah. I know when these big platforms roll out new features, they want people like you on board. That’s going to make people like me, like the regular plebes who follow you, interested. I assume they did not reach out to you or didn’t say, “Hey Omar, we really want you to start using IGTV.”
No, they didn’t.
Is that something you’ve ever done with a platform at this point?
No. I don’t think that’s ever happened yet, where someone has reached out and said, “Hey, we want you to do this just because we’re offering you money or we just think you should do it.”
Yeah. I would think that’s a good opportunity for you at some point. Do you want to have that relationship with these platforms or is it just like, “Hey, this is a utility for me to get my stuff out. It doesn’t really matter”?
No. I feel like I have a good relationship with Instagram. I’ve gone to their offices a few times. They’ve always been nice. I always feel like if I have an issue where I’m vocal about, where I’m like, “Hey, this shouldn’t work this way,” that I can just contact them. They’ll at least hear me out. Maybe they can’t fix it right away because they’ve got a million things to do, but they’ll at least hear me out because they’re like, “Hey, this account is important, especially in sports.”
Yeah. All right. Let’s look future. We talked about all the things you guys do have. I have noticed there’s been no World Cup. I imagine that’s because Turner doesn’t have the rights to the World Cup.
Yeah. We get to hear it. People are very vocal, which is a good sign, because we’re going to have Champions League rights in a few months.
Okay, so you will have soccer.
Yeah. What do you want to get into? I imagine soccer would be huge.
What are opportunities for you, where you’re saying, “Hey, here’s where we’re not really doing it right now and we need to be”?
Well, no. It’s just posting soccer highlights, the same way I do NBA highlights.
Obviously, the goals are always going to matter, but you see what other people are doing. They do it okay. Some people now are trying to copy the House of Highlights formula, but they haven’t figured out everything or they don’t hit stuff as consistently as we do. The same stuff you’re going to see, whether it’s players’ reacting, whether it’s making fun of a flop, whether it’s joking around. A funny video happens if you put a relatable caption underneath it. I think we’re going to go really big with that.
Okay. Soccer is big. Any other sports that you’re missing right now that’s a big opportunity for you guys?
No, because the NFL right now has been very good about sending clips that they believe that we should post. They’re usually right on the money. Like, “Yeah, I need to post Stefon Diggs’s game-winning touchdown in the playoffs.” No, everything is good so far.
Okay. Well, this has been great, man. I really appreciate you taking time. What about the House of Highlights podcast? Are we going to hear that any time soon?
You want to be my first guest?
Bring it on. I don’t know why anyone would want to listen to me when you could have Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade, but if you want to just loop me in with those guys ...
You’ll be the third one right after them. That’s what we’ll do.
That sounds fair. I appreciate it. Omar, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you so much for having me.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.