Amid an ongoing debate over the right of National Football League (NFL) players and staff to protest racial and social injustice by kneeling or remaining off the field during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, reports in November 2017 suggested that one high-profile conservative businessman had decided to cut his company’s commercial ties with the league.
On 1 November 2017, the sports web site Bleacher Report stated that the Papa John’s pizza chain, led by politically conservative CEO John Schnatter, had announced they “pulling advertising associated with the NFL”:
Papa John’s says it has been pulling advertising associated with the NFL. The league, it says, has given some future spots in return.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) November 1, 2017
Sports web site The Wildcard later reported that “one of the NFL’s biggest advertisers is pulling its ads,” and the Conservative Daily Post wrote that “one of the biggest advertisers for the game of football is about to walk away over the disrespect being shown by kneelers on the field as the anthem plays.”
These stories didn’t quite present the full picture of the issue, and a spokesperson for Papa John’s told us that original reports about the issue were “misinformed” while offering this clarification:
We have not pulled back our NFL advertising. Papa John’s already has a strong association with the league, so we have scaled back the use of NFL marks in certain areas.
When asked for additional detail, the spokesperson mentioned current television advertising and referred to an update included in Darren Rovell’s ESPN story of 1 November 2017:
Later in the day, a spokesman clarified that the [television] spots themselves weren’t being pulled [from NFL games], just the NFL shield or “official sponsor” designation on those spots.
So it appears that Papa John’s television commercials that air during NFL game telecasts, such as one featuring former quarterback Peyton Manning and Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter, will in the future no longer bear the legend “Official pizza sponsor of Super Bowl LI,” but Papa John’s will nonetheless continue to advertise during NFL games:
Papa John’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) Steve Richie explained the link between the company’s financial position and the NFL:
We’ve had a long-standing relationship with the NFL and it’s served us quite well, just in terms of the overall brand awareness — we’re actually the number one recognized partner with the NFL, two years running. So we get the benefit when things are going well, but clearly we’re going to get the downside implications when things aren’t going that well.
CEO John Schnatter similarly noted that:
Last year, the ratings for the NFL went backwards because of the elections. This year, the ratings are going backwards because of the controversy. And so the controversy is polarizing the customer, polarizing the country, and that’s the big difference here.
Richie summarized the issue as being related to a combination of declining NFL ratings and negative publicity generated by the ongoing anthem protests:
I do think that the negative consumer sentiment is having a big impact on our business … Less viewership and negative consumer sentiment is the double down effect, it’s having the biggest negative impact.