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Volume 20 No. 42

Events and Attractions

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.

While the Special Olympics organization has its roots in the United States, under late founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and the first International Special Olympics Summer Games occurred in Chicago in July 1968, the first Special Olympics USA Games did not occur until 2006, in Ames, Iowa. That event was followed in 2010, in Lincoln, Neb.

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.

Some sponsors that have become involved have been touting their association well in advance of the start of the event competition. Toys R Us began its efforts one year ago, when it put its support behind the Special Olympics’ Young Athletes Program, where athletes from across the country are profiled. Three of those profiled competitors were featured on signage in more than 800 Toys R Us and Babies R Us stores across the country.

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.

Two Special Olympics athletes, Derrick and Delon Noble, appeared on Fox Sports 1 along with Nelligan on the channel’s “Fox Super Bowl Daily” in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Additionally, more than 20 local Fox affiliates broadcast a 30-minute special on the USA Games in May, and a promotional advertisement has been airing and will air more than 2,000 times in 17 markets across the country leading up to the event.

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.”

Brown agreed.

“For us as an organization,” he said, “it has been a rewarding experience and something we hope to replicate.”

The Special Olympics are nothing new to T.J. Nelligan. The longtime sports marketing executive, who serves as the chairman and chief executive officer of this year’s Special Olympics USA Games, has been involved with the organization for more than 20 years.

The driving force behind Nelligan’s commitment: His 24-year-old son, Sean, who has an intellectual disability. Sean’s favorite sport is basketball, but he plays soccer and bocce ball as well and will compete in bocce ball in the upcoming USA Games in New Jersey.

Nelligan’s career has afforded him the opportunity to experience numerous big-time sporting events. The 2014 Final Four marked his 25th Final Four. He’s also attended 15 Super Bowls, the Olympics and the World Series. The founder of Nelligan Sports Marketing in 1999, he sold his company in February to Learfield Sports. That deal also allowed him to turn all of his focus to the Special Olympics USA Games.

Sean Nelligan, who will compete in bocce ball in the USA Games, is the driving force behind father T.J.’s commitment.

He’s been on the Special Olympics New Jersey board of directors since 1995 and has served as chairman for three years. “I’m involved every day,” Nelligan said of the lead-up to the start of this month’s event. “We’re spending 12 hours a day.”

It was a trip to Dublin and the Special Olympics World Summer Games in 2003 when Nelligan realized the big-event potential of the Special Olympics in the United States.

“I was so moved by this event in Croke Park in Ireland,” Nelligan said. “There were 80,000 people. They had Bono and U2. They had Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, 100 stars that you would’ve known, and as I went around that week I said, ‘This is a big deal to the people of Ireland.’ That was pretty incredible to me that a country embraced the movement of Special Olympics in such a huge way. The entire country.

“When we came back, Marc Edenzon, the president of Special Olympics New Jersey, and I talked about it and said we ought to do something like that in New Jersey.”

To put on an event inspired by the World Summer Games in Ireland, Nelligan needed to go beyond the traditional model of public funding and charitable donations for financial support. The connections and relationships with business executives that Nelligan cultivated throughout his sports marketing career were vital to the ability for the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games to secure the corporate sponsorships and support necessary to make the event as big as Nelligan hoped.

“I think that had a huge impact, because a) we could get meetings with decision-makers, but b) we put together a presentation that showed them they would get real value,” Nelligan said. “It’s not a media buy, but it’s no different than being a sponsor of the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the World Series or any other thing, except that we have a huge audience when you just look at the families that are involved with Special Olympics.”

Over the past three-plus years, Nelligan helped the USA Games secure deals with the likes of 21st Century Fox, KPMG and Prudential to reach a budget of $15 million to $20 million, more than twice the amount of any previous Special Olympics event in the United States. While part of the goal was certainly to put on a spectacular event on par with other big sporting events, the potential result of a Special Olympics Games of this magnitude is what hits home for Nelligan.

“The biggest thing that I wanted to do by hosting these games was to get the word out, what I call, outside the bubble,” he said. “I’ve seen the difference Special Olympics makes in athletes’ lives and in their families lives by not only sports competition, but by them meeting tons of friends like all of us do when we play high school sports, and that leads to increased confidence and self-esteem, and then they are able to better fit into the community and have jobs and be colleagues with the people they work with.”