Just two days before Papa John’s and the NFL ended their official sponsorship in late February, one of the pizza chain’s most recognizable faces made a significant change as well. Former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning sold his stake in 31 Papa John’s franchises in the Denver area on February 26 after six years of ownership. Company spokesperson Peter Collins confirmed the news to USA TODAY.
Collins said Manning would remain a spokesperson and ambassador for Papa John’s as part of a previously reached long-term agreement.
Manning sold the 31 locations to Mike Pierce Jr., who told The Denver Post he wasn’t concerned about Papa John’s suddenly shaky standing with the powerful sports entity.
“Well, yeah, everybody knows what happened last year. We’ve been working on this way before anything happened in the NFL,” Pierce told The Denver Post, adding that he’s more interested in Denver’s growth potential as a prime restaurant market.
Papa John’s was the official pizza of the NFL until recently promoted chief executive officer Steve Ritchie and company announced the split. Papa John’s said it would instead refocus its marketing efforts into the 22 NFL teams the company remains a sponsor of. So Papa John’s isn’t abandoning football by any means.
“While the NFL remains an important channel for us, we have determined that there are better ways to reach and activate this audience,” Ritchie said in a February 27 conference call following the brand’s fourth-quarter earnings. “Thus we will shift our marketing from the broader NFL sponsorship to focus on our partnership with 22 specific NFL teams, a significant presence on league broadcast and digital platforms and on our relationships with many of the league's most popular players and personalities.”
This situation with the NFL was muddy for some time. In December, founder John Schnatter announced he was exiting as CEO. Schnatter took heat for comments made about the NFL’s handling of national anthem protests, saying: “The NFL has hurt us. And more importantly, by not resolving the current debacle to the player and owners' satisfaction, NFL leadership has hurt Papa John's shareholders.”
“The NFL has been a long and valued partner over the years, but we are certainly disappointed that the NFL and its leadership did not resolve the ongoing situation to the satisfaction of all parties long ago,” he continued. “This should have been nipped in the bud a year-and-a-half ago. Like many sponsors, we are in contact with NFL, and once the issue's resolved between the players and the owners, we are optimistic that the NFL's best years are ahead.”
The company responded to the backlash by apologizing on social media and even had to condemn white supremacy after a neo-Nazi site, The Daily Storm, endorsed Papa John’s and published a post that asked if the chain was “the official pizza of the alt-right.”
Soon after, Schnatter stepped into a chairman role and Ritchie, a longtime employee who started with the company in 1996 as a customer service representative making $6 per hour, took over.
For fiscal 2017, comps increased 0.1 percent in North America. International sales lifted 2.6 percent and 4.4 percent in the fourth quarter and full year, respectively.