After 7-year partnership, Papa John’s officially breaks up with the NFL

After a season filled with controversy, Papa John’s pizza company decided it will be ending its sponsorship of the National Football League.

The pizza chain, which faced slumping sales last year it blamed on NFL player protests, announced Tuesday that it was not going to be “the official pizza of the NFL” moving forward, ESPN reported.

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“The NFL and Papa John’s have made a mutual decision to shift from their official league sponsorship to a focus on partnerships with 22 local NFL teams, presence in broadcast and digital media, and key personalities in the sport,” a joint statement from the league and Papa John’s said.

The NFL’s pizza chain of choice since 2010, the company’s founder and former CEO John Schnatter ignited both praise and backlash last year when he criticized players staging protests during the national anthem. Schnatter announced that the kneeling players were hurting the pizza company’s business.

“We are certainly disappointed that NFL and its leadership did not resolve the ongoing situation to the satisfaction of all parties,” he said at the time. “This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.”

Papa John’s pulled its ads during game broadcasts and took the NFL shield off its pizza boxes last fall. But not long after, the company issued an apology.

“The statements made on our earnings call were describing the factors that impact our business and we sincerely apologize to anyone that thought they were divisive,” Papa John’said in a statement. “That definitely was not our intention.”

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(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley, File)

Weeks after Schnatter’s comments, the face of the Papa John’s brand stepped down and was replaced by Steve Ritchie as CEO in January.

The company, which will retain partnerships with 22 of the individual teams, is the first to drop a sponsorship of the NFL.

“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 a conference call, according to CNN Money.

“We have really got a lot of key learnings on how we can invest our dollars more appropriately,” Ritchie said, as the company reported Tuesday that North American sales were down 3.9% from the same time last year.

“So we thank the NFL for all the efforts and the partnership that we’ve had over the last seven years, and we’ll continue to be very prominent on NFL game days as we move forward,” Ritchie added.

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