Most high-profile executive hires spend their first few weeks earning their way around the office. Omar Raja, however, spent his first days elevating ESPN’s social media profile and covering big sporting events such as LSU’s win over Clemson at the College Football Playoff National Championship and Zion Williamson’s NBA debut.
It’s only been a couple of weeks since ESPN hired the founder of House of Highlights, but the 25-year old Instagram influencer is already moving the needle, according to Ryan Spoon, ESPN’s senior vice president of social and digital content.
“It’s been a very good January so far across the board on all fronts,” Spoon said. “It’s been a very good January in Omar’s world, in our social world, and on the ‘SportsCenter’ Instagram.”
The December before Raja’s hiring, total video views on “SportsCenter’s” Instagram account totaled 300 million. That number jumped 65% to 495 million through Jan. 23, with a week left to go in the month.
With Omar joining “Hoop Streams” in New Orleans on Jan. 22 for Williamson’s debut, the digital pregame show set a new regular-season audience record of 1.6 million viewers across Twitter, YouTube, and the ESPN App.
More importantly, Raja is helping create a community where there’s more of a two-way conversation between the Worldwide Leader in Sports and younger Gen Z fans. Since he took over, “SportsCenter’s” Instagram account has seen a 30% increase in engagement per post.
“The community numbers are what I’m most excited about,” Spoon said. “The engagement metrics per post are up significantly. You’ll see a lot of content that is oftentimes user-generated. And you’ll see Omar, in some of the comments, soliciting fans submission and fan feedback. It’s translated into significant views, some significant quantity and some significant engagement rates…There’s a ton of reasons to be very excited and enthusiastic and optimistic.”
Whereas previous talents like Bill Simmons, Michelle Beadle, and Keith Olbermann have clashed with ESPN over their marquee billing on the network’s platforms, Raja has leaned into its social accounts.
Raja, for example, has been allowed to personally brand “SportsCenter’s” Instagram. The page now reads: “I’m @Omar and this is SportsCenter. Submit videos by DM for a chance to be featured on the page or even seen on TV. #SCtop10.”
That was a deliberate decision by ESPN management. “I think you’ve seen a unique voice and a tone from the account that is certainly different from what we do at ESPN,” Spoon said. “That’s intentional. It’s probably different from what we do on other platforms. That’s intentional. And it’s very personable.”
When Raja jumped to ESPN from Turner Sports’ Bleacher Report, he brought along a four-person support team. According to Spoon, he and his HoH followers have meshed well with ESPN’s larger social media team, led by senior director Kaitee Daley. Bleacher Report, which bought HoH in 2015, says it still has a 25-person HoH team.
Said Spoon: “(Daley) is fantastic and phenomenal. She has a wider team. Everything has gone together well from how the content should work, how the content behaves and certainly how the human side of it all fits. That is a very real part of any job.”
At Bleacher Report, Raja left behind an HoH account that boasts 15.6 million followers on Instagram. ESPN’s SportsCenter Instagram account had 15.4 million followers as of Jan. 23. ESPN spokeswoman Kristie Adler declined to comment on how many added followers Raja has brought to “SportsCenter’s” Instagram account, beyond saying the numbers are “outpacing” December 2019.
Raja’s brand will always be connected to the NBA. But his biggest opportunity at ESPN is the multitude of sports rights that the Worldwide Leader in Sports controls. Look for Raja’s face and voice to pop up on-air and online during ESPN’s biggest events, whether it’s the NBA, NFL, UFC or college sports, according to Mason Bates, account director for sponsorships and content at Mindshare.
“His role at ESPN will be myriad as the sports juggernaut continues to pursue the younger audience,” Bates said. “We envision them giving Omar a lot of opportunities to bring his brand to life across ESPN.
Hip anchors like Olbermann, Dan Patrick, Kenny Mayne, and the late Stuart Scott made “SportsCenter” cool in the 1990s. Then, when highlights became a commodity, ESPN’s flagship property was said to be a dinosaur. With Raja, ESPN has a chance to make “SportsCenter” cool again to a new audience.
“Outside of Tony Romo going to ‘Monday Night Football,’ Raja will be the best hire of 2020 for ESPN,” said one rival media executive. “It totally changes the dynamic of ESPN in the social and digital space. They now are a community. The kids now feel a connection to ‘SportsCenter’ more than ever before.”