Looking for March Madness highlights? Kid from West Broward has cornered the market

Instagram now has more than 1 billion users worldwide, and while there are no firm statistics on how many focus on sports, you can be sure it’s plenty – especially during March Madness.

But one account—one young man, really—has become the consensus go-to among sports nuts, and athletes themselves, for the top sports highlights of the day.

And he was born in Kendall.

Omar Raja, 24, cracked the viral sports code thanks to a passionate love of ball—and a diligence and work ethic that are espcially rare in social media.

Today, his House of Highlights Instagram page has more than 12.3 million followers. By comparison, Dwyane Wade—a self-avowed House of Highlights fan, it turns out—has 12.9 million. (LeBron James, another active HOH supporter, has 47.9million.)

“In the past two years, Omar has become a really top-tier talent,” said Doug Bernstein, vice president of social media at Turner Sports Network’s Bleacher Report, which now owns House of Highlights. “He’s now one of if not the brightest in the sports space.”

Raja grew up in Pembroke Pines, the son of Pakistani immigrants, and attended West Broward High. His adolescence coincided with the end of the Dan Marino-era Dolphins.

“There’s no way this doesn’t happen if my Dad isn’t on couch every Sunday watching the Dolphins game,” Raja said. “He brainwashed me to say that Marino is the greatest quarterback of all time.”

Then the Alonzo Mourning-era Heat came along; the legendary power forward was Raja’s first jersey. Mourning’s Heat swiftly evolved into the Wade’s Heat. And then James arrived.

“I was getting glued in as a sports fan, as a Miami fan,” he said.

Raja was accepted into the University of Central Florida his junior year of high school. The summer before he was set to start classes, James announced he was opting out of his contract with the Heat.

“I immediately get depressed,” he said. “I was back home in Pembroke Pines, just broken that day, listening to all the local sports radio stations—it was like trying to get over a bad breakup.”

It occurred to Raja that he wanted to find a way to relive the memories of the Big-3 era Heat.

“We were talking about all these moments, and I was like, ‘I’ve got to find this specific video,” he said.

It was 2014, and Instagram had only just added the ability to create videos. It was virgin territory. He began scouring YouTube for clips he could upload. Slowly he began building a following.

When school started again, Raja watched as many pro basketball games as possible, usually working from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. Most nights, he would turn down going out, even when his friends begged him.

“I was just working NBA games, justifying to friends, ‘I can’t go out, I’m trying to watch and create videos for this ‘Insta’ page,’ ” he said. “But that was a sacrifice that kind of paid off.”

Raja admits that he would also “work” during school.

“If I’m being real, I was on ‘Insta’ during class and would just get the notes online,” he said.

It was a consistent body of work — not a single clip — that led to success. As competitor pages entered the fray, Raja set himself apart by going beyond simple dunks and buzzer-beaters to showing amusing or tender moments during games

He also included user-generated content. A recent example: A clip of a “Make A Wish” visit a young girl made to the Philadelphia 76ers locker room, where she got to meet star guard Ben Simmons.

Raja also recently showed standout Ole Miss wide receiver and current NFL prospect D.K. Metcalf calling his family after turning in a remarkable NFL Combine performance with a time of 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

As House of Highlights gained viral momentum, athletes themselves began tuning in. Today, HOH followers include both James and Wade (Raja has met both), along with two-time pro basketball MVP Stephen Curry, global soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, pro-athlete-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and rapper Snoop Dogg, among countless others.

“[Wade] said, ‘You really now got whole [darn] league following you.’”

Unfortunately, the popularity didn’t equate to any direct earnings. But in the summer of 2015, Raja’s efforts got the attention of Turner-owned Bleacher Report, currently the third-largest sports website in the nation according to Alexa, a web tracking tool.

“The content selection was really impressive,” BR’s Bernstein said. “We had team of 10 people on our end, and he was surfacing things that we had could not figure out how he was getting.

Raja’s voice was unique too, Bernstein said. The language and emjois he was using his in his captions was clearly generating a response, given how many people were laughing and tagging their friends in a given post’s comments section, Bernstein said.

After some negotiating, Raja agreed to join BR once he graduated UCF and to sell the rights to the House of Highlights brand to Turner for an undisclosed sum. Doing so gave Raja free reign to use almost any sports clip he pleased without worrying about infringing on league copyrights.

“The whole Turner thing was super attractive,” he said.

Today, House of Highlights get 650 million views a month during the NBA season, which lasts from mid-fall to late-spring. BR declined to state how much it generates in revenues but said the HOH team, which is 15 strong, now creates content for brands including Nike, Gatorade, Adidas and Under Armour. Turner is also a broadcast partner in the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, so there will be plenty of March Madness highlights—and, likely, revenues tied to them—over the next two weeks.

Though Raja now lives in New York City, he maintains close ties to his family in South Florida. He recently returned to West Broward to present students with free food and Miami Heat tickets. The room erupted when he walked in:

House of Highlights now has a YouTube page that racks up an additional 150 million to 200 million views a month. And Raja is starring in his own show on Twitter with former NBA star Nate Robinson.

Ryan Glasspiegel, who covers sports media for USA Today’s The Big Lead website, says Raja is now becoming a brand in his own right.

“Omar is on an interesting transition from being a highlight video aggregator, which is very valuable as evidenced by his level of accomplishment to this point but which is a beast that must be fed perpetually, to being an individual personality,” Glasspiegel said. “This could be a several-year process which will be fascinating to watch.”

For anyone else looking to create a business out of an Instagram page, Raja says it requires a full-time effort.

“I worked every day for 4-5 years, “ he said. “I think people forget about that part. They say, ‘You met LeBron, Carmelo [Anthony], Kobe [Bryant], everyone you could ever want to meet. But I was working from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. every single day, and still today I sometimes don’t stop til at least 2 am. This is still work, this takes a lot of time, it doesn’t blow up in a month.”