Etienne de Villiers

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Etienne de Villiers
Pretoria, South Africa
Alma mater
Occupation(s)Chairman, DataEQ; former chief executive of sports and media businesses; investor
Known forATP, Disney, BBC Worldwide
Board member ofDataEQ
Former board member of:
  • BBC Commercial Holdings Board
  • Englefield Capital
  • ITV plc
  • Video networks
  • SLEC
  • Jetix

Etienne de Villiers is an investor and executive in global media and sports businesses. He is chairman of DataEQ, a leading South African opinion mining company.[1]

His former roles include executive chairman of the ATP Tour, president at Walt Disney Television International, chairman of BBC Worldwide, chairman of Virgin Racing F1 team, board member of Kirch/SLEC and ITV, director of Saracens rugby club and CEO of Satbel.

Early life and career[edit]

De Villiers was born and raised in Pretoria, South Africa, the son of South African cardiologist Marquard De Villiers. He has three sisters and a brother; record producer Paul, is responsible for the triple platinum Mr. Mister album Welcome to the Real World.

After graduating with a civil engineering degree from the University of Pretoria, DeVilliers received a Rhodes scholarship and read PPE at Oxford University. Following stints in engineering roles, in 1979 he joined management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, where he was influenced by colleagues Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, authors of In Search of Excellence.[2]

In 1984 De Villiers was hired by Sol Kerzner to become CEO of Satbel, the South African entertainment conglomerate and operator of South Africa's largest cinema chain, Ster-Kinekor.

Satbel and racial de-segregation in South Africa[edit]

As CEO of Satbel, De Villiers was instrumental in ending racial segregation in South African cinema theatres. Describing his dealings with former South African president F. W. De Klerk, the then-Minister of Internal Affairs, de Villiers said: "We bluffed each other that it would be catastrophic if we didn't do the right thing. De Klerk bluffed the government and I bluffed the entertainment industry and together we managed to pull it off."[3][4]

Indian Premier League[edit]

In 2009 De Villiers was asked by his former business partner Lalit Modi to assume ultimate responsibility for promoting the 2009 Indian Premier League in its last-minute switch to South Africa. The IPL was moved less than a month before opening ceremonies were due to begin, following terrorist attacks in India. At the time Modi was quoted as saying: "It's taken South Africa eight years to get ready for the 2010 soccer World Cup. We've had 29 days".[5] Moving host nations is reported to have required the short-notice booking of 59 matches in 8 South African stadia, as well as 10,000 air tickets and 30,000 hotel rooms.[6]

De Villiers asked François Pienaar to lend his support.[7] The endorsement of the talismanic South African 1995 Rugby World Cup captain is credited with sparking interest in the IPL among South African fans, many of whom had never heard of the visiting Indian city-teams.[8] The Times of India reported that the South African IPL tour did much to boost racial integration and presented South Africa as the perfect sporting destination. Citing the IPL's positive reviews, the Times called the South African tour "a successful experiment in atypical globalization ... where the West has to look to the East".[9]

Tenure at the ATP[edit]

In September 2005 De Villiers was appointed chairman of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP),[10] the governing body of the men's professional tennis circuit. De Villiers was given a brief to modernise men's tennis, a sport that many commentators believed to have grown stagnant and balkanized.[11]

While some in the sport took against his reforms, De Villiers' tenure is now viewed more favourably. De Villiers is credited by the Financial Times[12] newspaper with making the sport easier to follow and more entertaining for fans, doubling prize money for players and attracting $1bn of new investment.[13][14]

De Villiers was behind the decision to host the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena. With its more dramatic and theatrical presentation, the O2 event was marketed as a clean break from traditional UK tennis, although both the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association helped to publicise it. The inaugural event overcame initial scepticism to register a total attendance of more than 250,000; the venue hosted all ATP World tour finals until moving to Turin in 2021.[15]

De Villiers fulfilled his three-year contract with the ATP in December 2008.


De Villiers' reform of the ATP essentially involved players giving up a degree of autonomy in return for higher potential earnings, and persuading promoters and agents to endorse a more TV-friendly tournament format, sometime at the expense of individual interest groups within the sport.

Some of De Villiers' decisions were publicly contested by players and promoters, notably Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Inside Tennis magazine reported the position between De Villiers and players thus:[16]

The problem for de Villiers is the ATP is a union of multi-millionaire 19-25-year-old kids and they don't want to take orders from a former Disney executive.

In March 2008, 20 ATP players signed a letter to the ATP Board of Directors to the effect that De Villiers' contract should not be renewed until other candidates were interviewed for the position. Other players were more approving.[17] In a 2007 Inside Tennis interview, doubles player Mike Bryan said of De Villiers: "[he] might make a couple of bad calls, but in general the guy's a genius".[18]

The ATP experienced external controversies during De Villiers tenure, most notably an antitrust lawsuit brought by the German Tennis Federation. The lawsuit challenged the ATP's right to downgrade Hamburg's status on the Masters Series, a decision that also reduced the earnings of some clay-court players. Hamburg's case was unanimously rejected by the US jury, but legal victory came at a considerable financial expense to the ATP.[19][20][21][22]

Separately, in 2007 several players reported being approached by illegal gambling rings offering money to fix matches. The ATP's subsequent investigation found some players had gambled in contravention of the ATP's rules. Although none had bet on their own matches, five players were fined and suspended. The much-publicised Davydenko-Argüello match in Sopot, where Betfair suspended betting after a series of highly unusual bets, prompted a rethink in the sport. De Villiers initiated an independent review to investigate whether corruption was systemic within the game.[23] The report called for the establishment of a tennis-wide anti corruption unit, a recommendation that led to the Tennis Integrity Unit, a joint initiative by the ATP, ITF, WTA and the Grand Slam committee.[24] In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, De Villiers said: "We can't possibly stop our athletes being approached [by illegal gambling rings]. We can't have all of our 700 or 800 athletes with bodyguards, but what we can do is educate them on their responsibilities when they are approached and the consequences of not behaving appropriately."[25]

A New York Times profile of De Villiers and ATP described him as "quotable and irreverent".[26]

BBC Worldwide[edit]

De Villiers was chairman of the BBC's commercial holdings board, including BBC Worldwide, from 2005 to 2009. In de Villiers' last year as chairman the organisation announced revenues exceeding £1 billion for 2008/2009.[27] In 2007/08, BBC Worldwide reported profits of £120m, up three-fold on 2004/05, with much of the increase coming from international expansion and new businesses.[28][29]


In 1986 de Villiers joined the Walt Disney company, where he managed Disney's television activities worldwide. He went on to become head of Disney in Europe, including its theme parks, stores and home entertainment, with the international TV business growing from $15m to $1bn during his tenure, and from six employees to 700.[30][31][29][32]

Virgin Racing[edit]

In October 2009 de Villiers was appointed chairman of the Virgin Racing F1 team.[33] He resigned upon the team's sale to Marussia in December 2011.

Private equity[edit]

De Villiers cofounded private equity vehicle Englefield Capital, whose main investor was the Dutch Brenninkmeijer family. Englefield raised its debut fund of €730m in May 2003.

De Villiers is a former non-exec director of Pi Capital, an investment network for high-net-worth business leaders.[34]


De Villiers is the current chairman of DataEQ, an opinion-mining technology firm. He is also an investor in the firm. DataEQ uses AI algorithms and crowd-sourcing to assess public opinion expressed online. It accurately predicted the results of the 2016 Brexit vote and Donald Trump's 2016 Presidential election victory.[35][36]

Personal life[edit]

De Villiers is a former director of Marie Curie Cancer Care and the National Film and Television School Foundation.

He is married to his childhood sweetheart.[26]


  1. ^ "Brandseye Limited - Filing history (free information from Companies House)". Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  2. ^ Caradoc-Davies, Gillian (May 1985). "Etienne De Villiers - Satbel's Superstar". Cosmopolitan (South African ed). pp. 48–50.
  3. ^ Nolte, Elizma (9 August 2006). "The art of entertainment". South Africa Times. p. 23. one of the proudest moments of his career
  4. ^ Voland, John (5 March 1987). "South Africa Theater Chain Wins Desegregation Battle". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 28 March 2012. the national government passed on the authority to integrate the theaters to local governments--many of whom are more loyal to the apartheid policy than is the central government in Pretoria.
  5. ^ Booth, Lawrence (18 April 2009). "South Africa prepares for biggest test as IPL crosses continents". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 March 2012. In fact, the South African public may well be sufficiently interested to make the tournament work
  6. ^ "South Africa to host IPL matches from April 18th". India Today. March 2009. Retrieved 4 April 2012.
  7. ^ "Pienaar heads IPL marketing". Sport24. Retrieved 4 April 2012.
  8. ^ "The IPL's secret weapon". ESPNcricinfo. Retrieved 4 April 2012. the sort of moral authority most sportsmen can only dream of. When he was introduced to the pupils at the Alexander Sinton High School in Athlone on Friday, the roar almost shattered the windows. And that was from 1000 kids from another ethnic background.
  9. ^ Majumdar, Boria (2 May 2009). "It's A Game Changer". The Times of India. Archived from the original on 13 July 2012. Retrieved 12 March 2012. IPL-2 is also a successful experiment with globalisation.
  10. ^ "How it all began". ATP World Tour. Retrieved 7 March 2012. ATP revenues grow by 15%, a record 4 million fans attend ATP tournaments and broadcast hours grow with record numbers watching on television.
  11. ^ Osborn, Richard (October 2006). "ATP, De Villiers Innovating 'Around The Edges'". Inside Tennis. p. 21. The tennis establishment has long been criticized for what is perceived as an inability to properly promote the sport.
  12. ^ Morris, Charles (19 June 2008). "Courting Controversy". Financial Times. Retrieved 7 March 2012.
  13. ^ "Etienne de Villiers To Step Down As ATP Executive Chairman". Tennis News.
  14. ^ "Tennis Week". Retrieved 27 March 2012.
  15. ^ Eccleshare, Charlie (10 November 2018). "How dry ice, blue lights and Roger Federer on a boat made ATP World Tour Finals take off". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  16. ^ "The Buzz". Inside Tennis. Archived from the original on 3 January 2011. Retrieved 12 March 2012.
  17. ^ Dell, Kristina (29 October 2006). "Tennis Gets Reset". Time. Archived from the original on 12 January 2007. Retrieved 28 March 2012. Bob Bryan, one of the pros who initiated the lawsuit along with his twin brother Mike now lobs compliments by email: 'He's a cool guy who doesn't need this gig. He just wants to help tennis and the tour'
  18. ^ Simons, Bill. "Band of Brothers". Inside Tennis. Archived from the original on 3 January 2011. Retrieved 27 March 2012.
  19. ^ Clarey, Christopher (15 June 2008). "Biggest guns in men's tennis seeking more control". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 March 2012. 'The $7 million figure is a speculative figure,' Dent said. 'What's important to remember here is that the ATP, like most corporations, has insurance to cover most issues like litigation costs.'
  20. ^ Cambers, Simon (5 August 2008). "ATP delighted as court upholds restructuring plans". Reuters. Both the jury and Judge Sleet have recognized and upheld our fundamental right to set and make changes to the ATP Tour calendar, changes that are necessary if we are to unlock the full potential of our sport {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |url= (help)
  21. ^ "ATP Wins Crucial Anti-Trust Case". BBC News. 6 August 2008. Retrieved 28 March 2012. The ATP faced the legal case after downgrading the Hamburg Masters from its elite status as part of schedule changes for 2009. But after a two-week trial, a US jury said the decision did not constitute a breach of monopoly laws.
  22. ^ Phil Milford and Sophia Pearson (6 August 2008). "ATP Cleared by Jury in Case Over Tennis Tour Schedule". Bloomberg. Retrieved 28 March 2012. Ruskin told jurors the federation knew that, as part of a contract, it had agreed such decisions were within the ATP's authority.
  23. ^ Austin, Simon (11 January 2008). "Tennis steps up corruption fight". BBC News. Retrieved 28 March 2012. We've got to stay ahead of this threat and assume the threat is going to grow rather than subside.
  24. ^ Rees, Jeff (2011). "About Us". Tennis Integrity Unit. Retrieved 27 March 2012. the threat posed to the sport's reputation by the huge and ever-increasing sums of money bet on tennis required swift action to protect the integrity of the sport for all stakeholders and fans around the world
  25. ^ "In the Arena: The bane of tennis: Gambling, not doping". The New York Times. 2007.
  26. ^ a b Clarey, Christopher (20 November 2009). "The A.T.P.'s Low-Profile, Hands-On Chief". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 23 May 2018.
  27. ^ "BBC Worldwide revenues exceed £1bn for the first time". BBC Press Office. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  28. ^ "BBC Worldwide sees record profits". BBC News. Retrieved 29 March 2012. Sales of BBC programmes to foreign broadcasters helped operating profit at its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, rise 17% to a record £117.7m
  29. ^ a b Tryhorn, Chris (25 August 2005). "Ex-Disney man to chair BBC's commercial board". the Guardian. Retrieved 23 May 2018.
  30. ^ Shurmatis, Dawn (March 1988). "Global March". ABC Ink: 9.
  31. ^ "BBC appoints first non-executive Chairman of BBC Commercial Holdings Board". BBC Press Release archive. BBC Worldwide. 25 August 2005. Retrieved 12 March 2012. By 2000 the international TV division had a turnover of approximately $1bn with 1,400 employees (including joint ventures) in over 20 countries, having grown from six employees and revenues of $15m when he joined in 1986.
  32. ^ Guider, Elizabeth (16 December 1997). "Granath makes way for De Villiers at ABC". Variety. Retrieved 23 May 2018.
  33. ^ Allen, James. "Virgin Go Their Own Way With New Breed F1 team". James Allen on F1. Archived from the original on 17 November 2011. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  34. ^ "Board of Directors". Pi Capital. Archived from the original on 1 August 2012. Retrieved 29 March 2012.
  35. ^ "SA's BrandsEye chief addresses UK House of Lords on opinion mining | The Media Online". Retrieved 3 May 2018.
  36. ^ "Africa: South Africa's Brandseye Analyses Customers' Social Media Brand Mentions Using Crowdsourced Analytics". Digital Content Africa (London). 26 April 2017. Retrieved 3 May 2018.