Exclusive: StarzPlay CEO Maaz Sheikh on fuelling growth with hyper-local drama & sports

Maaz Sheikh

Maaz Sheikh, CEO and co-founder of StarzPlay, tells Mark Layton why hyper-local drama and sports coverage are paving the road to success for the MENA regional player.

It’s been a good few months for MENA streamer StarzPlay, which recorded a 70% boost in viewership and 50% hike in sign-ups during Ramadan, over the previous year, while its recent move into original content is also bearing fruit.

Typically delivering a big, if temporary, subs pike, Ramadan viewing figures are largely driven by regional soaps, such as established Syrian series Bab-Al-Hara and, this year, by shows like historical drama Seroh-El-Bateaa and Egyptian action series Harb. These peaks, however, can lead to longer term subs retention.

But this is just the latest headline in what has been an ongoing growth trajectory for the MENA streamer, StarzPlay’s co-founder and CEO Maaz Sheikh tells TBI.

“The last two to three years, we’ve been experiencing 40% to 50% growth year on year,” says Sheikh, who admits that despite this he expects to see a flattening of the curve on the road ahead – while also recognising there is still plenty of room for expansion in the region.

“As the numbers get big, you know, it’s just math; at some point, the growth rate is going to come down. But the market is still in early stages and the streaming adoption is still in its early stages. I think we have a long way to go before streaming services truly become household products throughout the MENA region.”

There is already plenty of competition vying for attention in MENA, however, with big global brands like Disney+ moving into the region. But for now, it’s the local players that are dominant, and StarzPlay is among the most successful, reaching more than 2.1 million subscribers across 19 countries.


Regional relevance

In-fact, while global services lately appear beset by cuts – whether that’s content or staff – many regional players, like StarzPlay, look to be going from strength to strength.

Sheikh suggests it’s because so many global streamers are trying, and failing, to emulate the forefather of them all.

“If there was a playbook, Netflix wrote it; other than what Netflix did, there’s really no other playbook for success – and Netflix had a 15-year head start. I think for anyone to replicate what Netflix did is near impossible, because they have established a brand. They have the content, and they can make it work at a global scale.”

Sheikh says that where regional players are succeeding is by not trying to mimic the global services, but by working around them. “That means doing what we can do better, which is finding that locally relevant content and telling those hyper-localised stories that connect emotionally with our audience that they will not find on other global platforms.

“We are focused on this region; I don’t have subs in Asia to worry about or Latin America, we can create content for MENA and focus on that alone. I think that’s where our strength lies.”

Sheikh says that this hyper-localisation is about more than just content, however, encompassing telco and mobile operator partnerships to facilitate methods of payment in a region where credit card penetration is sparse. And additionally, cultivating a social media connection that understands the local audience.

“It’s execution on all three fronts. It starts with content, hyper-localised methods of payment, and then finally, building that social awareness,” he says.


Key demographic

As far as hyper-local content goes, StarzPlay has been pushing into originals in recent months. Its first original series was Kaboos, a horror anthology that debuted at the start of the year, exploring folklore and urban legends from different parts of the Arab world.

Sheikh explains that creating the hyper-local content that StarzPlay audiences want is not as simple as just making Arabic shows. For example, with Kaboos, he reveals “our goal was that if you gave someone the name of the episode, that they would immediately know what this tale is, and they should be immediately transported to their childhood when their grandparents were telling them this story.”

Sheikh says that the success of Kaboos has given StarzPlay confidence as to where it wants to focus its content strategy.

“We definitely think that 17-to-35-years-old is our sweet spot as far as age group is concerned. Then we really like the fantasy horror genre, as well as historical period dramas. These are the two genres that have worked well for us.”

Chambers, StarzPlay’s latest original Arabic series, is a “dark thriller”, while original film Mr Harley came to the service earlier this month, after a theatrical run, with both aimed at that key demographic. Meanwhile, on the unscripted side, StarzPlay is pulling in local versions of established formats, having adapted Discovery’s Say Yes To The Dress, while Million Dollar Listing is launching in September.

As far as budgets are concerned, the streamer is spending between $40,000 to $200,000 per episode, depending on the project and whether it is scripted or unscripted, and Sheikh says that StarzPlay is always open to co-production, at various stages of development.

“For us, the most important aspect is relevance for our audience and financials. If those two things work, then we’re open to different models of co-producing or commissioning, and even licensing.”

My Hero Academia

Curated acquisitions

While largely focused on local content, StarzPlay is also acquiring western series that appeal to that same 17-35-year-old demographic, looking at action, drama and thrillers.

“We try to build sort of a balanced, curated offering,” says Sheikh. “So, for example, this summer, we are releasing the new season of Billions. This is a much-awaited season and it’s exclusively on our service.”

He explains: “We try to have one major, exclusive show like this and then at the same time, we have shows like The Big Bang Theory, or The House or Frasier; older box sets that might not be exclusive to us, but still do really well. We realise we need both, and we can’t always afford everything in first window and exclusive.”

One area where StarzPlay has been finding huge success is anime. Having declared itself the region’s “home of anime” in 2021 after striking a deal with the TV Tokyo Corporation, the service has greatly expanded its offering in the months since.

“I would say two years ago we were carrying maybe three to four major anime titles. Now we have over 3,000 hours of anime content and we’ve focused on securing and licencing those big franchises like Naruto, Boruto, Attack On Titan, My Hero Academia – all the household names. But at the same time, we have curated a library [of lesser-known titles appealing to] discerning anime fans.”

Sporting halo

Another of the driving factors in StarzPlay’s subscriber growth has been its premium sports coverage. Ahead of the start of the Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket season earlier this year, the service registered a ten-fold increase in new sign ups.

Again, Sheikh points to local interest, not just in teams or athletes from the region, but also a large local interest in specific sports.

“We showed the ACR World Cup and very recently wrapped up the IPL season. We’re acquiring these rights in the MENA region – I don’t have to acquire those globally, so the economics work for us.

“That’s number one. Number two; we are looking at our audience. We don’t see them as one homogenous group; for example, in UAE the population is quite diverse in nature and there’s a significant portion of the population that’s of the subcontinent descent. If you’re going to target that audience, there’s no better product than cricket to do it with.

“Similarly, with the local Arabs, in this part of the world, football is a passion. That’s why we carry Italian league, we carry the local UAE leagues… and we’ve built that hyper-localised sports offering to cater to each segment – it is extremely important.”

Sheikh sees sporting events, and the coverage of them, as an important area of growth in MENA, explaining: “We’re seeing this change in in global sporting events and leagues where, events are being held in the region. For example, last year, the NBA had a few games here in Abu Dhabi and the UFC has a number of fights in Abu Dhabi every year.

“The local relevance of sport tends to have a huge halo effect. On one of our more popular shows on UFC, The Ultimate Fighter. [UFC champion] Conor McGregor is coming back [as coach on the series], he’s backing one of the teams. So that show is getting a lot of momentum, partly due to the fact that UFC is so heavily supported and localised in Abu Dhabi,” he says.

“This local relevance of sports is going to make this region up for more global sporting events, just like NBA matches, just like UFC. I think you’re going to see more of that here, which means good things for streamers like us, because we benefit from that halo effect.”

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