Papa John’s is taking a knee on its NFL sponsorship.
The pizza chain told reporters in a Tuesday briefing that it will cease sponsoring the league, ending the eight-year deal just months after its then-CEO blamed slumping sales on the NFL player protests of the national anthem.
“While the NFL remains an important channel for us, we have determined that there are better ways to reach and activate this audience,” CEO Steve Ritchie said during a conference call, CNN Money reported.
According to Mr. Ritchie, the parting with the NFL was mutual and separate deals with 22 of the league’s 32 teams will not be affected.
Papa John’s sales have slipped almost 4 percent in the past year and the company’s stock has declined by much more — 33 percent — in the last nine months, according to CNN Money.
The NFL’s numbers also have slipped in the past year. During the 2017 seaso, television ratings dropped by 9.7 percent, which has been attributed in part to some players kneeling or sitting during the national anthem in a protest against social injustice.
The NFL is expected to name a new pizza sponsor by the start of the 2018 season.
This isn’t the first time Papa John’s, whose spokesmen include such NFL icons as Peyton Manning and J.J. Watt, has expressed disappointment with the league.
John Schnatter, the company’s founder and public face, told investors in a conference call last November that the widespread kneeling or sitting of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the league’s widely seen indulgence of the protesting players, was costing the NFL’s sponsors.
“Leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership,” he said then. “The NFL has hurt us by not resolving the current debacle to the players’ and owners’ satisfaction … The NFL has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.”
“This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago,” he said. “The controversy is polarizing the customer, polarizing the country.”
The company later apologized for the remarks and Mr. Schnatter had stepped down as CEO by year’s end, though he still appears in its ads.
• Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.