Trip to World Summer Games in Dublin inspired Nelligan to think big for New Jersey
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.
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.”