Papa John’s Could Cut Ties with NFL Over Anthem Protests

Before you can say 'extra cheese, please,' there may no longer be an 'official pizza of the National Football League'

Papa John’s, the well-known pizza chain, is considering severing its ties with the NFL amid the continuing national anthem protests by players and others on the field before televised games.

Since 2010, the Papa John’s Pizza brand has held the title of “official pizza of the National Football League” — but now, the company is re-evaluating its massive business venture with one of the biggest sports leagues in the world.

“If the viewership decline continues, we will need to shift into things that work more effectively for us,” Papa John’s President Steve Ritchie told The Wall Street Journal on Friday. 

The comment came two days after company CEO John Schnatter, who donated $1,000 to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, ripped the NFL amid the mass national anthem protests. He blamed the league for his company’s decline in pizza sales.

“The NFL has hurt us,” Schnatter told Bloomberg last Wednesday. “We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this.”

Papa John’s stock price dropped by more than 5 percent from the start of the 2017 NFL season to November 1, according to a piece in Sports Illustrated. After Schnatter’s comments, the company took another hit; its stock dropped 11 percent more, according to CNBC. 

In the past, Schnatter’s success had been tied to the NFL. The company’s top celebrity endorsement came from retired quarterback Peyton Manning — and when the company’s stock rose about 10 percent in 2014, Schnatter credited the NFL as a major reason for that success, according to Bloomberg. 

Since Colin Kaepernick started the anthem-kneeling “movement” at the start of the 2016 season, however, the NFL’s popularity has taken a major hit. From 2015 to 2016, the NFL’s ratings dropped by about 8 percent, according to The New York Times. This season, ratings dropped an additional 7.5 percent in the first six weeks of the 2017 NFL season, according to ESPN. Plus, the NFL’s favorability rating dropped 13 percentage points from August to September this year — from 57 percent to 44 percent, according to a study conducted by The Winston Group. 

Related: NFL Player Who Stood for the National Anthem ‘Explains’

Despite this drop in popularity for the league, only a few companies have actually pulled their ads from games, according to NJ.com in early October. Allan Jones, who owns Check Into Cash and Hardwick Clothes, was the biggest sponsor to go; he dropped ads in all 29 states in which his business operates, Fox News reported. Unsurprisingly, a political candidate used ad pulling as a way to affirm his stance on the issue. Rep. Jim Renacci, a Ohio Republican who is running for governor in the state, also pulled about $20,000 in NFL TV ads back in late September, according to that same report. 

The league is on the brink of losing one major sponsor and possibly more.

If Papa John’s were to go, the chain would be the first national sponsor to cut ties with the league over its anthem protests. If the company were to do so and the backlash was not extreme, other companies could follow the same course of action. 

The chair of advertising sales at NBCUniversal, Linda Yaccarino, told Business Insider last Friday that sponsors have threatened to pull ads from NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcasts if the network continues covering the NFL national anthem protests. 

Hence — the NFL has been warned. The league is on the brink of losing one major sponsor and possibly more. If major companies decide to go through with their threats, the NFL may be forced to rethink its stance on kneeling during the playing of the national anthem — and what protests like that truly mean.

(photo credit, article images: Papa John’s, CC BY-SA 4.0, by Ildar Sagdejev)