Exclusive Media & Advertising Starzplay Arabia: the rise and rise of a streaming giant By Andy Sambidge May 9, 2022 Starzplay streamed the men's T20 World Cup in 2021, reporting a big rise in subscriptions from cricket fans With new shareholders on board, Starzplay Arabia’s Danny Bates is looking to the future with renewed confidence Danny Bates, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Starzplay Arabia, could be forgiven for being a little distracted, sitting down to talk to AGBI as Disney+ prepares to launch in the Middle East and Apple TV+ basks in Oscars glory with CODA. Far from being phased, he is looking forward to the streaming company’s “new era” with confidence – not least because of its new shareholders. In March, E-Vision, a subsidiary of e& (formerly known as Etisalat Group), and ADQ, a holding company owned by Abu Dhabi, bought a controlling stake in Starzplay Arabia. “Competition? It’s fun,” says Bates. “We are aware of Disney+ coming in June or July, but I think there is space for more than one in this market. “With the new shareholders, we are well equipped to go up against any competition. We have one of the biggest investment funds, one of the biggest telcos and one of the global studios in Lionsgate behind us… We are blessed to have a great shareholding structure behind us for us to compete,” he says. “There’s also a lot to be said for being a local company at heart. We don’t have 150 markets that we need to focus on. We are very focused on MENA and building the best possible platform for our customers. We are well placed. We know the competition is there, so we know we need to continue to up our game and make sure we are providing the best possible product.” After enjoying rapid growth since its launch in 2015, Starzplay Arabia has close to 2 million subscribers across 19 countries, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa. It streams a wide range of Hollywood movies, TV shows, documentaries, live sports, children’s entertainment and Arabic content. Khalil Zein, left, hosts Say Yes to the Dress Arabia while drama series Baghdad Central is one of Starzplay’s hits Focus on Arabic content Starzplay Arabia’s new era will get underway properly next month with the launch of its first original Arabic series, in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Investment Office and moviemaker Image Nation. “We know that if we really want meaningful growth in subscriber numbers we need to up our game on original Arabic content,” he says. The series will be the first of many original Arabic shows for Starzplay Arabia, according to Bates. It follows the release of Say Yes To The Dress Arabia, a local version of the hit reality show co-produced with Discovery. So, could Starzplay eventually have its own production studio? The company is more likely to partner with talent already available in Abu Dhabi through the TwoFour54 infrastructure, says Bates. “Never say never, though.” Strong backers Elaborating on the benefits of the E-Vision/ADQ investment, Bates says: “We are hugely excited about the deal… and the support that E-Vision and Etisalat can bring both in terms of the distribution via their operating companies and also in terms of economies of scale… We’ve been building up to this point and now bringing on local shareholders of such strength makes it time to go again and realise our full potential. There’s so much potential there and it’s now down to us to ensure we bring that value to the business.” There’s a lot to be said for being a local company at heart. We don’t have 150 markets that we need to focus on The addition of ADQ is equally important, not just financially but also for its assets such as Abu Dhabi Media (ADM), he adds. “We’re looking at how we can produce original content together, how we can acquire content together and we have already worked closely on sports rights,” he says, pointing out that some Ramadan programming this year was co-acquired with ADM. The new investors have come at a pivotal moment for the sector. Research from RedSeer Consulting predicts that that the digital economy in the Middle East and North Africa region will grow to nearly $100 billion by 2023, from an estimated $44 billion last year, fuelled by rising consumer adoption of digital services such as streaming. A big win from live sport Alongside the drive for more original Arabic content, Bates says Starzplay Arabia is looking for further opportunities to show more live sport on its platform.In February, the company reported a five-fold increase in monthly subscribers, driven by the addition of sports content. In conjunction with E-Vision, Starzplay won the exclusive rights to live stream the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup in 2021 – and recorded significant gains in terms of daily sign-ups, consumption and play time in minutes. “Live sport has been really interesting for us in 2021… We saw the impact that can have on subscription growth,” says Bates. “It’s something that we see becoming more of a core product, but there has to be a return on investment.” Danny Bates, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Starzplay Arabia. Originally from the UK, Bates brings more than 20 years of experience to his role as chief commercial officer, which sees him lead product and business development as well as the penetration of new markets. Before establishing Starzplay, he was senior vice-president of sales at OSN, with responsibility for the pay TV group’s revenue and sales across the Middle East and North Africa. So, what does the future hold for his former colleagues at OSN? According to Bates, the pay TV concept is still alive and well, but he believes it will be a “natural move” for companies to transition to offer more online streaming – known in the industry as over-the-top (OTT) services. “All pay TV companies in the region are evolving their OTT distribution strategy and over time – whether that be in three or maybe five years – I think there will be a time when they will go OTT only. Why keep satellite transponders active? Why continue to invest in hardware?” he says. As for Starzplay Arabia, Bates says we should keep watching, because more big content announcements are coming soon. Starzplay Arabia in focus Starzplay Arabia is a subscription video-on-demand service that streams Hollywood films, television shows, documentaries, live sports, children’s entertainment and Arabic content to 19 countries across the MENA region and Pakistan.It carries thousands of premium titles including exclusive Starzplay Arabia original content, such as Baghdad Central as well as premium content with add-ons such as discovery+, UFC Arabia, BluTV, Premier Sports, AD Sports, PowerPlay, Majid TV and Golf TV.Starzplay Arabia has secured tie-ups with global studios including MGM, 20th Century Studios, Disney, Warner Bros, Universal, Discovery and Fox International Channels.Until 2022, Starz, a Lionsgate company, was the lead investor along with media and technology investment firms such as SEQ and Delta Partners. In early 2021, Starzplay Arabia secured its first independent financing in the region of $25 million from Abu Dhabi-based Ruya Partners.In March 2022, E-Vision and ADQ, an Abu Dhabi-based investment and holding company, acquired a majority equity stake of about 57 percent in Starzplay Arabia.Starzplay Arabia allows its nearly 2 million subscribers to watch its full HD and 4K content via most internet-enabled devices, smart TVs and game consoles, and is widely available on regional IPTV services. Its iOS and Android apps, installed on more than 3 million devices, also allow downloads for offline playback.