The Real Reason Papa John’s Is No Longer the Official Pizza of the NFL

After some making headlines in recent months, Papa John’s will no longer be the Official Pizza of the NFL. The two parties came to a mutual agreement to end their partnership, cutting short the eight-year relationship between Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter and the NFL. But this move wasn’t just about the NFL looking to avoid low-quality, mass-produced pizza. In late February, the league announced a new agreement with Pizza Hut.

“With a focus on family, friends and fun, Pizza Hut has the creativity we are looking for in a partner,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a Wednesday statement.

What went wrong, and what is the real reason for this unexpected split? Let’s take a quick look at the several reasons why the move makes sense, including the big reason that can’t be ignored any longer.

8. Peyton Manning isn’t here anymore

Peyton Manning in one of his many commercials.

Peyton Manning in one of his many Papa John’s commercials. | Complete TvSpots on YouTube

When you think of Papa John’s and football, Peyton Manning immediately comes to mind. Manning has been doing commercials with Schnatter for years and even embraced the former CEO on the field following his final Super Bowl victory in 2016. It’s hard to think of Schnatter and not imagine Manning by his side, hocking their cheap pizza and the bright yellow, garlic-flavored liquid that required to ingest it.

But Manning is no longer in the NFL, even if he’s still a popular figure. Indeed, Manning is still in commercials during NFL games on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday, even if he’s no longer on the field. But out of sight, out of mind for the NFL. Having Manning as a spokesman no longer has any pull within the league, if it ever did.

Next: Schnatter’s unfortunate comments

7. Some bad public relations

 Buffalo Bills

Members of the Buffalo Bills kneel in protest of police brutality. | Brett Carlsen/Getty Images.

Schnatter got himself into hot water with the NFL last season. What’s more, it wasn’t the first time he made comments that created bad PR for Papa John’s. During a conference call with investors on Nov. 1, 2017, Schnatter blamed the NFL and players protesting police brutality for declining sales numbers.

“The N.F.L. has hurt us by not resolving the current debacle to the players’ and owners’ satisfaction,” Schnatter said. “N.F.L. leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.”

This statement drew criticism from the league, the players, and the media. It’s notable that many white supremacist groups subsequently praised the pizza chain and claimed it as their official pizza. That led to Papa John’s scrambling to try to disconnect themselves from Neo-Nazis, but the damage had been done.

Next: Schnatter was right about one thing…

6. The sales are down

Papa John's Pizza

Pizza employee at Papa John’s. | Mike Moore/Getty Images for Papa John’s

Meanwhile, Schnatter was correct that sales are down at Papa John’s. The reason for that is still debatable — our guess is the pizza stinks — but that doesn’t change the cold, hard facts. According to the Louisville Courier-Journal:

Papa John’s released third-quarter sales figures on Tuesday that show diminished rates of growth at established North American locations: 1.5 percent this year as opposed to a projected 2- to 4-percent increase. In 2016, North American sales increased 5.5 percent during the same period … Papa John’s NASDAQ shares fell 8.5 percent Wednesday and are down 23 percent on the year as the company lowers its growth expectations. Shares in Domino’s Pizza, meanwhile, are up 11 percent.

Could it be that the NFL is moving on from Papa John’s in large part because of this very reason? It could be that Schnatter’s unfortunate comments served another purpose outside of drawing bad PR: It drew the NFL’s attention to their floundering sales. Maybe the league just decided it was time to move on to a more popular brand.

Next: Pizza Hut is objectively better in one big way.

5. Pizza Hut is simply more popular

Pizza Hut All-American NCAA Cross Country Event Highlights 2016 - Day 2

Slices of Pizza Hut pizza. | Jeff Schear/Getty Images

If the NFL was looking for a more popular pizza brand than Papa John’s, they made the right call by partnering with Pizza Hut. According to Pizza Today, Pizza Hut continued to be the No. 1 chain by measure of gross sales. It has been at the top every year since the list was first created in 2011. Papa John’s comes in third behind Domino’s, although they did leap-frog Little Ceasar’s in 2017.

By measure of total locations, Pizza Hut trumps Papa John’s by a figure of more than 3-to-1. In sales, they beat their competitor in 2017 with over $14 billion in gross sales to just $3.6 billion. That number looks like a bigger gap than it truly is, considering the difference in total stores. Even still, adjusted to dollars-per-location, Pizza Hut still beat out Papa John’s. Per store, Pizza Hut had 19% more in gross sales than Papa John’s in 2017.

Next: Better ingredients? Prove it.

4. Papa John’s pizza is not good

Papa Johns contest winner Anthony Green and Former NFL Star Cris Carter watch the NFL kickoff game on September 9, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.

Not even NFL Hall of Famer Chris Carter can make Papa John’s taste good. | Mike Moore/Getty Images for Papa John’s

If you’re asking why Pizza Hut is more popular, there could be a lot of reasons. More locations means that people are more familiar with it. Pizza Hut has been around seemingly forever, thanks to their campy, memorable 1990s-era commercials featuring B-list celebrities. Although it’s still pizza chain quality, people simply seem to prefer Pizza Hut over Papa John’s.

Add to that the fact that a whole lot of people just simply don’t care for Papa John’s. They aren’t exactly honest with their famous slogan “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza. Papa John’s,” either. The NY Daily News attempted to dig and find out what, exactly, those better ingredients are. They hit a major wall.

When I called Papa John’s customer toll free number, I was told that for “additional information on allergen or nutritional info” I should leave a message with Connie Childs, who would return my call the next business day. I left two messages, but Connie never called. Public relations wasn’t much help either. My emails and voicemails went unanswered.

It could just be, as this review of the pizza from The Atlantic asserts, that Papa John’s pizza is trash.

Next: Schnatter saw the writing on the wall.

3. Schnatter out as CEO

John H. Schnatter, Founder, Chairman & CEO of Papa John's Pizza

John Schnatter | Rob Kim/Getty Images

Following his unfortunate comments about the NFL and the bad PR that followed, Schnatter stepped down from his position as CEO of Papa John’s. Maybe this was an attempt by the company to save their relationship with the NFL, but if that’s the case it clearly didn’t work. This isn’t the first time that Schnatter has stepped down, having down so in 2005 only to return as CEO again in 2008. That may have played a role in why the NFL continued the split.

It really is a smart move for Papa John’s to remove Schnatter, even if it’s just in an official capacity. For any league or other partner of the pizza brand, a polarizing public figure such as Schnatter is a liability. While many agree with his statements on raising pizza prices in the wake of the Affordable Care Act and applaud his anger toward players protesting police brutality, Papa John’s clearly isn’t in a financial position to be alienating large segments of Americans.

Next: Papa John’s will still be involved with football, but with a couple conditions.

2. More control

Papa John’s announcement | Papa John’s

Not being associated with the NFL as a whole will ultimately give Papa John’s more control and diversity over their marketing efforts, which ties in to our No. 1 reason why Papa John’s and the NFL went their separate ways.

As the image above from their press release explains, Papa John’s will still be involved with NFL players and teams, by sponsoring 22 local NFL teams and key personalities in the sport. This could only be the beginning of how Papa John’s will change over the coming years.

Next: The No. 1 reason Papa John’s is no longer the official pizza of the NFL.

1. Papa John’s needs to rebrand

Papa John's Restaurant Exterior

Papa John’s | Wolterk/iStock/Getty Images

With Schnatter out as CEO and the company making a mutual split with the NFL, it’s likely that the company sees this as an opportunity to re-brand. Let’s face it, the company could fire Schnatter out of a cannon into the sun and football fans would still equate every “Official Pizza of the NFL” commercial they see on Sunday with his polarizing comments. The split gives them a chance to change their image.

Domino’s went through a similar upheaval in recent years. When it was determined and finally accepted within the company that people thought their pizza was garbage, Domino’s made a point to change the recipe, add new menu items, and adjust public opinion. Papa John’s ditching their CEO and founder, cutting their partnership with the NFL, and maybe adding some actual fresh ingredients could help them someday become as popular as Pizza Hut.

Additional reporting by Eric McWhinnie.

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