Pizza Hut is the new official pizza of the NFL — and that should terrify Papa John’s

Pizza from Pizza Hut and Papa John's.

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Pizza from Pizza Hut and Papa John’s.
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Hollis Johnson

  • Pizza Hut has taken Papa John’s spot as the official pizza of the NFL.
  • Papa John’s faced backlash and slumping sales after its founder slammed the NFL in November for its response to players’ national-anthem protests.
  • Though the NFL’s viewership has been declining, Pizza Hut’s expanded marketing ability as a result of the deal, as well as its two years of experience as an official sponsor of the NCAA, could give it an edge in competing with Papa John’s for fans’ business.

The NFL has a new official pizza.

On Wednesday, Pizza Hut announced it had signed a multiyear agreement to be the NFL’s official pizza sponsor, one day after Papa John’s said it had ended its NFL sponsorship deal.

Both pizza chains have struggled with intermittent sales slumps in recent years, and Papa John’s sparked controversy in November when John Schnatter, its founder and CEO at the time, slammed NFL leadership over players’ protests during the national anthem.

The incident contributed to what Papa John’s executives have called “negative consumer sentiment” and lower sales.

But Pizza Hut sees the deal as an opportunity – and for good reason.

Here’s why Pizza Hut could succeed where Papa John’s failed.

Papa John’s is weighed down by political baggage

Papa John's

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Hollis Johnson

Papa John’s NFL deal had been a bright spot for the chain in recent years.

“Our partnership with the NFL, in particular, has been exceptional,” Robert Thompson, the senior vice president of marketing at Papa John’s, told Business Insider in 2016. “One of the reasons the NFL is such a strong marketing opportunity is because of the number of people that watch the games live whether it be at home or in the stadium.”

But when the NFL got political, Papa John’s wasn’t able to stay above the fray.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, began kneeling during the anthem to protest racial injustice police brutality. Other players soon joined in, leading to waves of both encouragement and criticism, most notably from President Donald Trump in September.

“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 in November. “This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.”

Schnatter’s statements dragged Papa John’s into the middle of a polarizing debate, garnering backlash on the left and support on the right. The Daily Stormer, a white-supremacist website, even posted an article questioning whether Papa John’s was the “official pizza of the alt-right.” The chain responded that it did not want “hate groups” buying its pizza.

But Schnatter, who stepped down as CEO in December, has a history of taking political stances.

Schnatter came under fire in 2012 for saying the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare law better known as Obamacare, would be a “lose-lose” for Papa John’s franchisees and employees. Schnatter has also spoken on issues such as overregulation, and he donated $1,000 to Trump’s presidential campaign, though he did not publicly voice support for Trump.

Ultimately, Papa John’s – especially under Schnatter’s leadership – couldn’t stay apolitical while continuing to be the official pizza of the NFL.

The deal could split NFL fans, whose numbers are already dwindling

manning papa johns

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Commercials TV/YouTube

Though declining NFL viewership could be a lose-lose for both Papa John’s and Pizza Hut, it’s likely to affect Papa John’s more now that it isn’t an official sponsor.

The ratings slump isn’t a new problem for the NFL – it has struggled in recent years to attract viewers, with the analysts and the league citing everything from the 2016 presidential election to millennial “cord-cutters” to excessive commercials.

Meanwhile, chains heavily invested in the NFL, including Papa John’s and Buffalo Wild Wings, have blamed sales declines on the league’s lower viewership.

Now, while both pizza chains are pursuing the same dwindling crowd, Pizza Hut will have an advantage.

Papa John’s says it will continue to advertise to NFL fans using its deals with players and 22 teams. Pizza Hut, however, will be the league’s exclusive national pizza sponsor, giving it the ability to advertise with all 32 teams.

Already, the Pizza Hut deal has resulted in several shoutouts from various NFL stars on social media.

While declining NFL viewership isn’t a win for Pizza Hut, it’s definitely a loss for Papa John’s.

Pizza Hut already has a football deal

Pizza Hut Grilled Cheese Crust Pizza 4

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Hollis Johnson

Pizza Hut has experience using football as a marketing tool – with none of the controversy Papa John’s has faced.

Papa John’s NFL sponsorship, which began in 2010, was its first major deal with a sports league. The pizza chain became the official sponsor of Major League Baseball in 2016.

Pizza Hut, meanwhile, has been the official sponsor of the NCAA since 2016 in a deal that also includes the college sports organization’s football league.

That experience could help give Pizza Hut an edge in approaching the NFL deal.

“It’s very evident that Pizza Hut will run with this sponsorship and make the most of what the NFL offers in the way of reaching fans and customers, day in and day out, year after year,” Shad Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, said in a statement Wednesday.

Khan continued: “Having one of America’s classic brands like Pizza Hut happily come aboard in an important sponsorship category is another reminder of the continued power of the NFL. Nothing compares.”