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ESPN Bets on Instagram Guru Omar Raja in Quest for Younger Fans (EXCLUSIVE)

ESPN’s next potential superstar hasn’t thrown fancy passes on the field, and isn’t known for his prowess on the court, at the rink, in the ring or even on the track.

Omar Raja’s game is figuring out how to get sports fans chatting about, liking and passing along the video clips he makes of top athletes and plays. And that may be the skill most in demand at ESPN  – and perhaps the TV industry at large – in a future likely to be dominated by new video-watching behaviors.

The 25-year-old’s home ground is Instagram, where he founded the House of Highlights account and parlayed it into one of the biggest new fonts of sports commentary in the business today. His prowess with viral video, originally with basketball clips, led WarnerMedia’s Bleacher Report to hire him. The House of Highlights account these days has 15.4 million followers.

Now, Raja is moving to ESPN, where he will serve as a digital and social content commentator, but also devise strategy for social programming. “You can’t do the same thing you’ve done on Twitter on TikTok. You can’t just repeat yourself and do the same thing on every platform,” says Raja, in an interview earlier this week during his first visit to ESPN’s Bristol, Conn. headquarters. His ESPN debut is slated for Monday, January 13, on “Countdown to the CFP Championship” college-football pre-game show.“You have to be as authentic as possible. If you’re not, it’s not going to go too well for you.”

Raja will serve as the main voice of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” Instagram account,which has 15.2 million followers, and will play a role in devising content for ESPN’s mobile app. “He will join us in a multi-faceted role focused across the board, not just a single platform,” says Ryan Spoon, senior vice president of digital and social content at ESPN, in an interview. “It includes our own platforms, but he will also think about new content, new voices, and ways to deliver content to our evolving properties.”

ESPN has made no secret of its desire to grow its overall audience. It has little choice. As younger viewers partake of a greater selection of passed-along streaming video, they seem to be dropping some traditional sources of the stuff. ESPN, like many other media outlets that depend on cable and satellite distribution to reach sports fans, is expected to continue to shed linear viewers over the long haul. Market-research firm Kagan projects that ESPN’s cable and satellite subscriptions will come to 78.8 million in 2021, a drop of 6.3% from the 84.1 million it had at the end of 2019. ESPN2’s subscriber base, meanwhile, is seen dipping to 78.5 million in 2021 from 84 million in 2019, a dip of 6.5%, according to the S&P Global unit.

Building new concepts for digital and social outlets is one way to help the network reach “younger, more diverse audiences better than we ever have,” says Jimmy Pitaro, president of ESPN.  “With that foundation, adding Omar’s talent and singular voice across platforms creates exciting opportunities for us.

ESPN has invested much time in recent years in trying to figure out how to make programming that appeals to a new generation of sports viewers. These younger consumers often come to ESPN through looks at video highlights or snippets of traditional programs that are distributed via YouTube or Snapchat, or are made available via ESPN’s mobile app. They aren’t always turning in for a full game telecast.

But the content for emerging outlets has to be different from the game broadcasts that go up every week on the company’s mainstay cable networks. ESPN in June tested a mobile telecast of Game 2 of the NBA Finals in which host Katie Nolan and a crew of analysts and commentators were superimposed at the bottom of the screen, all while emoji-like symbols popped and data nuggets popped up during game play. ESPN has also crafted an edition of its venerable “Sports Center” specifically for Snapchat.

Even its old-school TV shows are getting tweaked. In August, ESPN offered a distinct “kidscast” of one of the games in the annual Little League World Series, featuring teenage commentators and sideline reporters. In April, ESPN offered two different broadcasts of the NFL Draft – one on its flagship cable outlet for sports fans and one on sister network ABC for people interested in the event as a spectacle.

Raja will help host some of those new formats. He will take part in a new edition of the live-streamed NBA pre-game show “Hoop Streams” with co-hosts Chiney Ogwumike and Christine Williamson. The weekly studio show debuts Wednesday, Jan. 15 between 6:30 and 7 p.m. eastern, and will be the first show produced from ESPN’s new Studio E in Bristol, a facility dedicated to a widening array of digital content and shows. The show will stream live on Twitter, YouTube, and the ESPN App.

ESPN executives also expect Raja to help plot strategy for hundreds of new live programs the company is creating for digital outlets, says Spoon. “Over the last year, we really quite literally doubled down on creating shows specifically for Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the ESPN App,” he says.

Much of ESPN’s success comes from the sizable live viewership it gets with its control over significant rights to broadcast “Monday Night Football,” and NBA and MLB games. In the not-too-distant future, however, the company may have to devise different measures, suggests Tag Garson, senior vice president of properties at Wasserman, a talent and brand agency with a specialty in sports. “Success may be defined by how many young people they are reaching, whether they are driving additional revenue opportunities, whether they are linking back to other content that can be consumed and whether they are providing viewers with reason to take in more ESPN content, whether it’s on a linear or digital platform.”

Raja says he’s just doing much of the same work he’s been performing since 2014, when he began to share interesting video clips of athletes and game play. “It just started as fandom, genuine fandom,” he says. “I started it as a way to share clips with my friends,” even though some of the clips might have been of funny facial expressions by athletes or other actions outside of matchups.

“You have to act cool,” he says, acknowledging he was excited to see various ESPN broadcasters walking the halls in Bristol. “I’ve been on my best behavior today, but we will see what happens in the next couple of weeks.”

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