Making the Games Even More Special: TJ Nelligan

Sports-marketing executive TJ Nelligan brought his expertise to the Special Olympics, soliciting more than $20 million in donations from 52 companies.

TJ Nelligan's work helped make the 2014 Special Olympics, held for the first time in New Jersey in June, the best attended and best funded in the event's history.
Photo by John Emerson

For this year’s 2014 Special Olympics, TJ Nelligan went big. “We changed the model,” says the longtime sports-marketing executive who served as chairman/CEO of the 2014 Special Olympics USA Games. His expertise helped make the June games the best funded and best attended in the national organization’s 46-year history, hosting 3,500 athletes, 1,000 coaches, 70,000 spectators and 10,000 volunteers.

The Special Olympics had always been funded by government grants and donations. Nelligan’s strategy was to sell the games as a sports-marketing opportunity—and boy, did it work. Some 52 companies donated more than $20 million for the week-long event, which was held in New Jersey for the first time.

Nelligan, a Montville native now living in Hoboken, sees the games as a venue for personal growth and opportunity. His son Sean, 24, has participated in the games since age 12. For the Nelligans, and for many families with special-needs children, the Special Olympics bridge therapy and fun. “When a child is first diagnosed with an intellectual disability, the family spends all their time going to therapists, and no one really has any fun,” says Nelligan, adding that the games have taught his son self-confidence.

“It’s not a road anyone would choose,” Nelligan says, “but the journey is amazing.”

Nelligan has been involved with Special Olympics since 1995. His career—he is the founder and former president of Nelligan Sports Marketing—exposed him to many major sporting events, including Final Four tournaments, the traditional Olympics, the World Series and the Super Bowl. He served as chairman and CEO of the 2003 Special Olympics World Games in Dublin.

He describes the Dublin games as “the most amazing event I’ve ever seen.” It convinced him that New Jersey should host the Special Olympics. “It’s been his dream to bring an event of this magnitude to New Jersey,” says Thomas Varga, who worked for Nelligan at his marketing firm and at Special Olympics USA.

The games—for athletes aged 8 to 80—strive to keep the competitors and their families busy the entire week.

“The amazing thing is that, after a while, you don’t see the disabilities,” Nelligan says. “Instead, you see the abilities—and that’s a happy day.”

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