There are more than 19,000 Special Olympics events held annually in the United States. They run the gamut in terms of location, participant numbers, volunteers and budget, yet no previous event has approached the size and scale expected for the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games, which kicks off this weekend in New Jersey.
The weeklong event is set to play out as the largest Special Olympics event in American history, with more than 3,500 special-needs athletes, 10,000 volunteers and 70,000 spectators taking part. Similarly, on the business front, the event’s budget of $15 million to $20 million well exceeds the budgets for its predecessor national events. That growth draws in large part from enhanced private fundraising efforts pursued as part of the planning for this summer’s event.
The national-level games debuted as a way to give more opportunities to special-needs athletes in America to compete beyond the global events. The World Summer Games returns to the United States next year (in Los Angeles) for the first time since 1999.
(The events are not linked competitively. While some Special Olympics programs in the United States do offer the USA Games as a qualifying opportunity for the World Games, athletes can use their respective State Games for qualification purposes for the event in Los Angeles next year. Ultimately, athletes of all ability levels have a chance to be selected for participation in the USA Games, with the number of slots made available drawing from a combination of factors, such as age and gender of the athletes, and venue capacities.)
The national events in Iowa in 2006 and Nebraska in 2010 were largely federally or state funded, operating on budgets of $4 million to $8 million. By comparison, 90 percent of the funds for the 2014 USA Games have come from corporate sponsors. The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority did recently allocate $2 million and resources it had available from hosting this year’s Super Bowl to the Special Olympics event (including security, transportation and promotional services), but all told, the event’s budget of $15 million to $20 million was the result primarily of private funding.
Through the connections and networking of T.J. Nelligan, chief executive officer and chairman of the 2014 USA Games (see related story), the event was able to secure partnerships with companies across numerous industries in a manner similar to other big sporting events.
Nelligan’s son, Sean, is competing in bocce ball at the games.
Nelligan said a tiered sponsorship structure was key to the effort, starting 3 1/2 years ago, when New Jersey bid for the Games.
“The biggest thing I did was said, ‘We need to change the paradigm of how this charity goes out and solicits sponsors and partners, and the first thing we have to do is create a corporate marketing program, a corporate partnership program where they’re at least getting value,’” Nelligan said. “It’s not just a donation. So instead of going out with a tin cup and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to run this Special Olympics event, would you like to give us some money,’ we created different levels.”
The top level, Founding Partner, required at least $1 million in support of the event, and is followed by Gold, Silver and Bronze tiers (see box). Including additional promotional partners and other sponsors, there are close to 50 organizations aligned with the 2014 Games.
“[Companies have] no budget for this, so you have to appeal to their greater good and wanting to be a good corporate citizen and for them to do the right thing, but we also had to create some value,” Nelligan said.
Toys R Us began its sponsorship efforts a year ago with signs in more than 800 stores.
Additionally for the USA Games, the company is the presenting sponsor of the Law Enforcement Torch Run and Young Athletes Festival.
“This inclusive, innovative play program for children with and without intellectual disabilities helps kids develop critical early cognitive, social and motor skills, and introduces them to the world of sports,” said Kathleen Waugh, chairman of the Toys R Us Children’s Fund. “As a company that loves kids, being linked to this program was perfectly aligned to our brand.”
Also on board as a Founding Partner is 21st Century Fox.
“We’re in the business of telling stories, and at the end of the day the Special Olympics are really about all of these amazing individual stories, and we also obviously have enormous reach both nationally and locally, and we thought that we had something important to offer them,” said Nathaniel Brown, senior vice president of corporate communications for 21st Century Fox.
The timing and location of these USA Games suited 21st Century Fox. The company split off from News Corp. in 2013, and the launch of Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 came last year as well. Fox also broadcast Super Bowl XLVIII from New Jersey in February, so the company had local resources already available to support a large sporting event in the area. That helped to provide a launching point for promotion of the USA Games.
Event Chairman and CEO T.J. Nelligan (left) appeared on Fox Sports 1’s “Fox Super Bowl Daily” with athletes Derrick and Delon Noble. With them is Fox Sports’ Tim Ryan.
On Wednesday, live and recorded coverage of the Law Enforcement Torch Run is scheduled for Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends” as well as on 21st Century Fox’s Times Square video screen.
Fox Sports 1 will air a one-hour recap of the Games June 30.
“What they’ve done is they’ve taken an event that was going to be probably the highest-profile event in the history of Special Olympics in this country and elevated it to a level that we dreamed we could do,” Nelligan said about 21st Century Fox’s involvement. “Now it’s become a reality that they’re helping us reach millions of people around the country who now will know the story of Special Olympics, and that was my main mission — to get the word out to people that have a Sean.”
From flying in 1,200 athletes on private Cessna planes to a dinner cruise on the Hudson River to see the Statue of Liberty, the 2014 USA Games are operating on a grander national scale compared with the prior events in 2006 and 2010. What remains to be seen is if the model of corporate sponsorship implemented by this year’s event will catch on for future events, or if it is merely a product of the New York/New Jersey marketplace.
“I think they can take the model we created and use that going forward no matter what market they take it to, but it’s certainly a lot easier when you’re in a market where there is a lot more big-time corporations than a small market, where there is not as many,” Nelligan said.
The host of the 2018 USA Games has not been set. No matter the location, the critical element for replicating the model used this year, Nelligan said, is providing value to participating sponsors beyond cause-marketing gains.
“I think that was the key,” Nelligan said. “This was really a big test to say can we put together a sports marketing model around the Special Olympics brand for these games really using the games as a culminating event for their promotions, and so far, the response from all the companies has been overwhelmingly positive.”
“For us as an organization,” he said, “it has been a rewarding experience and something we hope to replicate.”