LOUISVILLE KY (USA TODAY) - Papa John’s scored in the cutthroat competition between pizza makers seven years ago when it became the “official pizza sponsor” of the NFL and the Super Bowl, the biggest pizza sales event of the year.
But now the Louisville company, which replaced founder John Schnatter as CEO late last month after a series of controversies, isn't even sure it wants to buy an advertising slot for the Super Bowl.
And if it does, it's still unclear whether Schnatter would even be featured in the ad.
That would be a switch. Schnatter has been the most recognizable face in the chain's ads for many sporting events and especially on Super Bowl Sunday, the biggest day of the year for pizza sales as customers buy millions of pies from chains and independent operators.
Thirty-second ads during the Super Bowl cost more than $2 million, significant cash even for Papa John’s, where the yearly marketing and promotional budget exceeds $160 million.
Dec. 22: Papa John or 'Papa Gone'? Twitter reacts as CEO John Schnatter steps down
Dec. 21: Papa John's CEO, pizza titan John Schnatter, steps down
Brandon Rhoten, the chain's chief marketing officer, said in an emailed response to questions Thursday that Super Bowl advertising might be a game-time decision for the company this go-around.
"We currently do not have a Super Bowl spot booked or produced, but are exploring our options in and around the game," he said.
Rhoten added, "I didn’t buy my Super Bowl spot last year until the Monday before the game, so you never know.”
The company appears to be stepping lightly after Schnatter fumbled a November earnings call by blaming his company's lagging sales on the NFL's decline in popularity amid player protests during the national anthem.
Schnatter was roundly ridiculed on social media after the call, with some saying the decline was because of the quality of the pizza.
Then white supremacists crowned Papa John’s the official pizza of the alt-right — sharing an image of a pizza topped with a swastika fashioned with pepperoni slices.
It forced Papa John’s officials to release a statement disavowing the endorsement.
Nov. 15: Papa John's CEO apologizes to NFL, players for comments; blasts white supremacists
Nov. 6: Papa John's condemns endorsement from white supremacist publication
And while the company remains the official sponsor of the NFL — the sponsorship deal was renewed in 2016 for undisclosed financial terms — it apparently has been reconsidering whether tying its fortunes to the league and its big game is a good idea.
Rhoten told Ad Age, an advertising trade publication, that the company has been distancing itself by removing NFL imagery and "official sponsor" wording from ads.
He also said the company is evaluating whether to continue as the official pizza sponsor of the NFL and the Super Bowl.
The company also is airing more 15-second spots highlighting the pizza chain rather than 30-second spots about football and stars such as ex-quarterback Peyton Manning.
The goal is to avoid tying the company’s fortunes to partners such as the NFL, Rhoten told Ad Age.
"We can't be beholden to their success. ... We'll take advantage of it, and when they win, we'll win. But when they're not doing as well, we don't want to suffer."
Nov. 1: Papa John's CEO blames NFL for declining sales due to mishandling of anthem protests
Aug. 7: Papa John's sells a gluten-free pizza that people with serious gluten intolerance can't eat
He was noncommittal on whether Schnatter will appear in ads around the Super Bowl or thereafter.
Rhoten said Schnatter is still integral to the Papa John's story but added the “the brand has some room for flexibility.”
This year, Papa John’s executives hinted that they may have some fun by mixing in a fresh face in rapper Lil Jon.
His Twitter account carried a tweet Dec. 22 joking that he’d accept the CEO job and could “start immediately.”
A Twitter exchange led to phone calls between Laundry Service, Papa John's new creative contractor, the company and the rapper.
Lil Jon's account later carried a cryptic update about Papa John’s late last month: “Excited for the future” with a handshake emoji.
Fans who don't know about Lil Jon more likely will be watching for Big John in the Super Bowl's ads.
If there's no Schnatter, that could be even more telling.
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