If you want to watch sports highlights on your phone, there are lots of sites and platforms that make it easy. But none is more now than House of Highlights. The bombastic, occasionally NSFW Instagram account is the hottest thing going, due in no small part to the dedication of its 22-year-old founder, Omar Raja.
“He’s honestly like the modern SportsCenter, or the young person’s SportsCenter,” says Dave Finocchio, CEO of the sports news website Bleacher Report, which bought House of Highlights a couple of years ago.
Finocchio is biased, but he isn’t wrong. House of Highlights recently passed 5 million followers—up from 2.1 million in January, 2016—and videos posted to the feed regularly top 1 million views. More impressive? It enjoys one of the highest interaction rates on the platform. (Instragram measures this by tallying the number of comments or likes per user reached.) According to Crowd Tangle, the account saw an interaction rate of 2.43 percent in January. Compare that to the 1.43 that SportsCenter, with 8.7 million followers, saw that month and you see Finocchio’s point.
Users don’t just follow House of Highlights, either. They share it friends, who share it friends, and so on. That gives the account a reach far wider than its following. Five mil is nice, but it’s nothing compared to the tens of millions of followers enjoyed by Instagram’s biggest stars. Finocchio likens the account to a boxer fighting above his weight class. Still, it’s enough to draw interest from sponsors like Lexus and Nike and get the suits at Bleacher Report pondering how to develop the business model.
Just Another Friend
What makes Raja’s posts so shareable is his online personality. He posts whatever he likes. A game-winning buzzer-beater? Of course! A clip of Russell Westbrook freestyle rapping? Why not? His comments lean heavily on emoji and read like something you’d get from a friend sharing a funny video. A caption for a clip of NBA player Kyrie Irving spinning through defenders and hitting a shot off one leg read, simply, Kyrie ?.
“It’s the way I talk to my friends,” Raja says. “You want to be as relatable as possible.”
Granted, most of your friends don’t spend ridiculous amounts of time sifting through DMs to find the next viral video. “He’s up every night until 3 or 4 in the morning,” says Doug Bernstein, VP of social media at Bleacher Report. “He works 12-hour days, and I’m probably underselling it.” Raja has been at it since he was 14, when he launched a sports and gaming forum. Years of practice gave the guy a voice and tone Finocchio calls one of a kind.
It helps that Instagram evolved past sharing a single square photo to include galleries and videos. That makes it the perfect platform for sports highlights, which are visual, short, and easily shared. “The way in which their sharing mechanism is set up really encourages direct friend-to-friend sharing,” Bernstein says. “When you share to Facebook you kind share it and of blast it to everybody, when you retweet it goes on out to everybody. On Instagram, there wasn’t initially that same share button. What people would do is they would ‘@’ message their friends. They would ‘@’ eight people in that caption, in that post, and say to all their friends ‘Yo, check out this post.’”
An especially popular post on House of Highlights posts might receive more than 5,000 comments. A video of an egregious turnover by the Los Angeles Lakers got almost 10,000. Scroll through them and you see most of them are “@” messages to other users, often followed by the emoji ? .
Of all sports, basketball best fits Instagram. The shot clock limits players to 24 seconds, hats and helmets don’t obscure them, and a super-human 3-pointer or monster dunk is eminently shareable. The NBA understands this, and has 21.6 million Instagram followers to show for it. “I think Instagram has become the quintessential storytelling platform for us,” says Melissa Brenner, the league’s senior vp of digital media. “Of all the platforms, one could argue that Instagram is perhaps one of the most artistic and visually appealing. We’re able to—whether its short form highlights or photos—tell a really interesting linear narrative.”
Perhaps nothing exemplifies this more than the NBA’s use of galleries. The league creates nightly, image-based recaps of games. Highlights galleries are popping up, too. Earlier this week, the NBA’s account featured highlights from each of LeBron James’s ten triple-doubles so far this season.
House of Highlights is not yet the new SportsCenter, but it shows serious game. It enjoys crazy growth, a young audience, and, perhaps most importantly, an established culture. No wonder Bleacher Report bet big on it.
“Over the next two to three years, as more and more people adopt Instagram as the paradigm for how they keep up with sports and sports highlights, then we truly become the must-follow account,” says Finocchio. “If we’re the must-follow account and brand, then advertisers [will come], and they already are. They understand our audience and incredible engagement we have and they want to be a part of it.”
Given the pace at which media consumption is changing, two to three years seems like a long time. Instagram didn’t even add video until four years ago. For now though, with Raja busy scoping and posting the best clips, the House of Highlights account remains the place to go for ?.