Papa John’s could kill its NFL sponsorship deal after national anthem protest controversy

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Hollis Johnson

Papa John’s is reevaluating its NFL sponsorship after controversy involving players’ protests during the national anthem engulfed the chain.

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

On Wednesday, Papa John’s CEO and founder John Schnatter slammed the NFL, blaming the league’s “poor leadership” and declining ratings on the pizza chain’s sales slump. According to Schnatter, controversy surrounding players’ protests had played a role in ratings decline.

Papa John's founder and CEO John Schnatter

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Papa John’s founder and CEO John Schnatter
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Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the anthem last year to protest racial injustice and police brutality. The controversy over the protests was renewed in September after President Donald Trump said players who did so should be fired.

“We are totally disappointed that the NFL and its leadership did not resolve the ongoing situation to the satisfaction of all parties long ago,” Schnatter said in a call with investors on Wednesday. “This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.”

Currently, the NFL is crucial to Papa John’s business. The company began its partnership with the NFL in 2010 and has “Preferred Pizza” partnerships with 23 NFL teams. Last year, the company signed a multi-year partnership with the NFL and the Super Bowl.

Ritchie “emphatically denied” to the Wall Street Journal that Papa John’s had pressured the league to ban protests. Instead, he said the situation had revealed issues with the chain’s decision to aggressively invest in television advertising, allocating a “huge percentage” of its fall and winter marketing budget to the NFL.

After President Trump tweeted in late September that players kneeling are “disrespecting our Flag & Country,” many of his supporters started canceling NFL TV bundles and burning merchandise. This week, many on the right rallied around Papa John’s after Schnatter’s comments.

However, the chain also faced backlash from progressives for seeming to blame players’ protest for subpar sales. Other pizza brands also piled onto Papa John’s, implying that the quality of the chain’s pizza – not NFL players – were to blame for the sales slump.