Official NFL and Super Bowl pizza sponsor Papa John’s probably didn’t secure an ad spot for Super Bowl LII.
John Schnatter — the company founder and the face of the brand — was replaced as CEO last month after he stoked controversy by blaming lagging pizza sales on players' national anthem protests and league leadership. Some say he did so at the behest of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
Regardless, it wasn’t a popular move — except with white supremacists, who quickly latched on to the brand after word of Schnatter’s rant, which they said reflected "outrage over [the NFL’s] anti-White agenda," got around.
Papa John’s was compelled to deliver a statement disavowing racism and hate groups, telling the Hartford Courier Journal the company "condemn[s] racism in all forms and any and all hate groups that support it."
The company’s 2017 third-quarter sales figures showed slower rates of growth than in previous years: 1.5 percent in North America, compared to a more than 5 percent increase the year before.
But, as competitors and their fans pointed out, there’s no demonstrable proof the decline in sales was directly related to players’ taking a knee during the pre-game national anthem to protest police brutality and racism.
And Pizza Hut said that protests in the NFL have not hurt its sales, according to Business Insider.
This isn't the first time the Papa John's CEO has been called out for his political views — he was criticized years ago for complaining that President Barack Obama's health care act would increase the costs of his pizzas. But this time, he wasn't just complaining about the president; he was going after the NFL, an organization with which he's appeared to have a yearslong mutually beneficial relationship, with this arguably being a high point:
Papa John’s announced in December that Schnatter would be stepping down at the start of 2018, and on Jan. 1, 2018, President and COO Steve Ritchie took his place. Schnatter was still going to be involved with the company and remain its chairman of the board. And he’s still all over the pizza chain’s official YouTube channel (but comments appear to be mostly disabled.)
"We have no plans to remove John from our communications," a Papa John's spokesman told Adweek. "This was the right time for Steve to step in the CEO role, who has been with Papa John’s for 21 years and started as an hourly employee. We want to focus on what we do best—our people and our pizza."
But, it’s likely you won’t see Schnatter’s face in Super Bowl commercials this year, as NBC Sports reported in early January that Papa John's had not, at that time, purchased a $2-million, 30-second ad spot.
"We currently do not have a Super Bowl spot booked or produced, but are exploring our options in and around the game," the chain's chief marketing officer Brandon Rhoten said. "I didn’t buy my Super Bowl spot last year until the Monday before the game, so you never know."
Rhoten wasn’t with Papa John’s for last year’s Super Bowl; he was with Wendy’s. And Papa John’s did not have a Super Bowl ad during the actual game last year, either.
Still, you never know.
But with no more Schnatter at the helm, and no more Peyton Manning in the game, it would make sense for the pizza chain to pivot and rebrand a little. And while they’re obviously not going to hire him for the CEO job, there’s got to be something they can do with this: