It’s not the beginning of the end for House of Highlights. Instead, it’s the end of the beginning.
That’s the attitude of HoH General Manager Doug Bernstein following the departure of founder Omar Raja to ESPN.
Bernstein said that there won’t be a “like for like” replacement for Raja, and it instead will be leadership by committee. But HoH is no longer a one-man-band. It has a 25-person team with the umbrella of Bleacher Report, and the brand and the team will continue to grow, he predicted.
“HoH has been developing talent we believe in,” said Bernstein. “We’ve built a roster of talent that we believe in and has a lot of potential.”
HoH, for example, is nurturing young stars like Kenny Beecham (nickname KOT4Q), who boasts 611,000 followers on YouTube. The YouTube influencer was signed in 2018 as HoH set out to become a true media brand, not just an Instagram account, with a YouTube channel and live Twitter talk show.
“He’s somebody we’ve seen take off – and become a next-level star that we’re excited about,” Bernstein said.
There’s no doubt Raja’s defection was a big loss for Bleacher Report. Since founding the popular Instagram account in his University of Central Florida dorm room in 2014, he turned it into a go-to spot for highlights. He also did it in his unique voice, helping capture the imagination of Generation Z sports fans.
But Raja’s defection to ESPN does not change some basic business metrics.
Bleacher Report still owns HoH. With 15.5 million followers, it is still the number one sports media brand on Instagram, reaching more millennials and Gen Z sports fans than any other account.
Out of the top 100 best-performing branded videos on Instagram in 2019, HoH generated 54.
On other social platforms, HoH is up to 2.3 million followers on TikTok, 1.85 million subscribers on YouTube, and 144,000 followers on Twitter.
“House of Highlights has carved out this incredible business and this incredible brand,” Bernstein noted. “As part of that, we know how to reach the Gen Z consumer. We’re establishing ourselves as the Gen Z sports destination. Our audience is growing. Our business is growing with that. As a result, the team grows alongside that.”
And the basketball-oriented HoH is going global, leaning into soccer and other highlight-driven sports embraced by young fans.
On Jan. 17, Bleacher Report is set to unveil exclusive content with soccer icon Neymar and Paris Saint-German Football Club on HoH’s social and YouTube channels as well as B/R Football.
“If we can meet with Neymar, it doesn’t get any bigger than that…Our guys came back with a crush on Neymar,” said Bernstein.
As for Raja, he made his ESPN debut Jan. 13 during the media company’s “MegaCast” coverage of the College Football Playoff National Championship.
At ESPN, Raja will serve as the leading voice on the “SportsCenter” Instagram account and contribute to digital and social content, including a new Hoop Streams live show with Chiney Ogwumike and Christine Williamson.
ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro is a personal fan of Raja’s work, said sources, and was instrumental in recruiting him.
“Omar’s distinct, edgy and authentic voice resonates perfectly with those we reach across digital platforms,” Ryan Spoon, ESPN’s senior vice president of digital and social content, said in a statement.
Raja was not the only Bleacher Report employee to jump to Bristol.
ESPN spokeswoman Kristie Adler confirmed that four of his colleagues came over with him as digital and social content specialists. They’ll work alongside ESPN’s team on social platforms and high-growth areas like Instagram, TikTok, soccer and high school sports.
Expect more fans to follow Raja to ESPN, predicted Mason Bates, an account director for sponsorship and content at global media agency Mindshare.
“There will be a lot of people that will follow him to ESPN. After all, the story of the everyday fan, who turned his passion into a lucrative, influential position in sports, will continue to follow Omar wherever he goes,” Bates said.
On the other hand, Bates believes that HoH “will survive and continue to thrive” without its founder.
“Even with his vision and personal connection to the origins of the brand and the community, House of Highlights is stronger than its founder,” Bates said. “The leadership team behind Bleacher Report, the owners of House of Highlights, are nimble and smart. They have staffed House of Highlights with a team that understands and will continue the momentum of the brand.”