#BestMan Jean Willers Backs Rise of Women’s Sport Leaders

Nielsen Sports South Africa MD Jean Willers is passionate about the rise of the girl child and encourages aspiring young leaders make education and skills development their focus if they are serious about getting into the business of sport. Photo: gsport

Nielsen Sports South Africa MD, Jean Willers, is a sports leader on the rise. He has built his career on a sound education and strong mentorship and continues to make leading impact in the research, data and analytics industry. 

Willers sincerity in backing women’s sport led to Nielsen Sports South Africa partnering gsport as the Official Market Research and Insights partner of the Momentum gsport Awards, as well as Naming Rights to the Nielsen Sports South Africa Sponsor of the Year category at the event. 

The #gsportNielsen partnership is focused on plugging the women’s sport research gap in South Africa and Willers leadership in this regard is priceless as gsport receives invaluable data to advance its vision and mission to raise the profile of women’s sport in South Africa. 

Willers is passionate about the rise of the girl child and wants to see young women aspire to become sports leaders. In fact, he has challenged them to approach him for an internship as he looks to play his part in closing the gender gap. 

In this interview with gsport, Willers talks about his career, his learnings and he shares his women’s sport sponsorship highlights of 2021.


Jean, you are approaching two years in your role as MD of Nielsen Sports South Africa. How are you enjoying this leadership journey?

It has been a really great experience and I love leading our sports team in Africa. Having the privilege to have led the business while we were still part of the NY listed AC Nielsen business was a massive learning curve. The enormous pressure that comes from having to constantly deliver and always be on top of your game played a big role in my leadership journey.  


Which previous experiences in your career supported you as you navigated your way as head of the Nielsen Sports SA business since January 2020?

Having strong role models have been my lucky charm. As much as we try reading books and attend leadership seminars, nothing beats experience. This is probably the biggest risk to the business of sport in South Africa – we need strong leaders that are willing to be role models to the younger generation. 

I was lucky to be noticed by the likes of Francois Pienaar at ASEM Varsity Sports and then Kelvin Watt who played a big role in bringing me into the corporate environment and to Nielsen Sports. Kelvin and I have recently become business partners and I continue to learn from him daily.


You have previously been quoted as saying data is the new “oil”. Is enough being done to advance data and research of women’s sport and what has stood out for you in recent times?

Women’s Sport has made huge gains in the last few years. Gone are the days where the rights fees come from the CSI budget. These properties, events, teams, and individuals are showing that they are just as valuable if not more valuable than some of their male counterparts. 

Globally, the interest and growth has been exponential, however, locally we still have a long way to go to ensure we are on a level playing field. As commercial partners become involved and see the success in sponsoring teams or individuals the greater the need will become for research, data and analytics. 


Nielsen Sports South Africa is the official Marketing and Insights partner of gsport. The partnership is a few months old. What did you make of the success of #gsport16 and what one insight can you share from data received?

We are proud of this partnership and look forward to continuing to provide insights, value, and research to the women sports industry through this relationship with gsport. 

Massive congratulations must go to the gsport team for pulling off a successful event in the middle of a pandemic. From the most recent reports, social and digital media has been a key value driver for the event and will continue to grow into the new year. 


Your company has a strong women presence on the team. It is not often that companies get the gender balance right. How did you do it?

I was lucky to inherit these wonderful women on my team. Now that we are a fully work from home business, the flexibility is very attractive to the women in our team and productivity has increased over the last year. Every leader must understand that we can’t do everything by ourselves and surrounding yourself with strong female employees, managers and leaders is a recipe for success.


There are young woman who are doing their best to breakthrough in the sponsorship industry. What is your advice to them about finding success?

Contact me for a job or internship – I would gladly be open to receiving CVs from young women trying to get into the industry. We need to make the industry an attractive one for all young women trying to get into the business of sport. 

Additionally, I am fortunate that I come from a family where education and skills development is on the top of the priority list. This is something that I have embraced in my career but have also encouraged my staff to keep up-skilling themselves. My advice to young women would be to be the most qualified person in the room, no one can take away your knowledge, insights, and education.


Who are some of your female role models and how have they impacted your career?

On a personal level, my mother, a medical doctor in her own right, and grandmother are both strong female leaders and role models in our family. They have always pushed me to be the best version of myself.

Regarding my career, I have been fortunate to have strong female leaders and role models throughout my career. My lucky break came at Stellenbosch University where Cindy van der Merwe and Ilhaam Groenewald gave me an opportunity to get involved in the business of sport. Currently Annalie Watt plays an important role within the Nielsen Sports SA business, and I respect the enormous amount of experience, knowledge, and insights that she brings to every conversation and project. Having her on my team is priceless and I cannot put into words how lucky we are to have her in the SA sports industry. 


How can we raise the profile of women’s sport to ensure it is commercially sustainable?

As much as “exposure” and time on screen is crucial to the continued growth of women’s sport, we still have a lot to do to in terms of high-performance training for women’s sport. 

“Our federations, unions, teams, and leagues must grow the base at grass roots level but also ensure that our ladies can make a career in sport.” – Nielsen Sports SA MD, Jean Willers

The success of the FIFA Women’s World Cup as well as The Hundred cricket tournament was due to the high quality of matches that took place. Commercial partners want marketing opportunities where there are “eye-balls” on screen – high quality women’s sport is the answer.  


What has been your women’s sport sponsorship highlight of 2021?

Other than Nielsen Sports SA partnership with the Momentum gsport Awards. The new cricket format developed in the UK – The Hundred – has been a massive success for female cricket, both on and off the field. Additionally, our South African ladies were the stars of the show!! 


What legacy would you like to leave in terms of playing your part in advancing women’s sport?

The business of sport is my passion and focus area, it is therefor my goal to ensure that we get young people excited and wanting to work in this industry. I will know that I have succeeded when I walk into a school/university and a young girl tells me that her dream job is to be the CEO of SA Rugby, or the commercial director of SA Cricket. That would be success!!  


Photo caption: Nielsen Sports South Africa MD Jean Willers is passionate about the rise of the girl child and encourages aspiring young leaders make education and skills development their focus if they are serious about getting into the business of sport. Photo: gsport


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gsport Newsroom

gsport Newsroom

Launched in 2006, gsport exists to enhance the commercial prospects of our women athletes, and other women in sport, by telling the inspiring story of SA women in sport. Thank you for your contribution!

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