Papa John's Mess Reveals Drawbacks of NFL's Power

Papa John's blaming of the NFL on declining pizza sales reveals the problems associated with the league's power.
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You would not expect the NFL’s day of reckoning to arrive during the subdued third-quarter investor earnings call of America’s third-largest pizza chain. And you would not expect Papa John Schnatter (eponym and founder of Papa John’s Pizza, the chain in question) to publicly force that reckoning while explaining management's downward revision of its year-end sales outlook, rebuking the league for which the company has been the official pizza sponsor since 2010. But ours are strange times, aren’t they?

Schnatter said on Nov. 1 that the NFL’s failure to “resol[ve] the current debacle to the players’ and owners’ satisfaction… has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.” He referred also to “the ongoing situation” and “the issue” and said, “This should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.” Papa John’s shares fell more than 8% after his comments.

Presumably "the issue" refers to the player protests over racism and police-involved shootings during the national anthem. Neither he nor his executives, though, identified precisely what was causing Papa John’s partnership with the NFL to become a problem—a headwind instead of a tailwind, in investor-speak. They spoke only of their desire to see a resolution. Schnatter, who has donated to President Trump among a slew of other Republicans and presumably has no warm feelings toward the protests, had every chance to blame the kneelers—and he passed it up. Instead, without naming him, Schnatter blamed Roger Goodell: “Good or bad, leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership.” 

When you’ve lost Papa John…

For the past season-plus, and especially for the past six weeks, the debate over kneeling has been waged by way of the press and social media, with the various flashpoints (Colin Kaepernick’s endless free agency, Vice President Pence’s early exit from an Oct. 9 Colts game) hardly transforming the prevailing view of the conflict as one between those who believe the players are right to kneel and those who don’t. This dispute resembles many others in our polarized era: rancorous, draining, partisan, seemingly intractable.

Intentionally or otherwise, though, Papa John revealed that the operative conflict here is another one—the one between the NFL and those whose view of the league has dimmed lately, which is to say everyone, from Papa John to Spike Lee.

On the earnings call, COO Steve Ritchie mentioned “significant negative consumer sentiment of our association with the league.” Polling shows that Papa John’s is the league’s most recognized sponsorship; a Fox News poll from Oct. 26 found that the NFL’s favorability among registered voters had gone from 64% to 46% in four years’ time. The league’s favorability fell among Republicans and Democrats, whites and nonwhites. Schnatter is no partisan crybaby; surely he faces long odds trying to sling more NFL-branded pizza year-over-year. (Papa John's says it has gone about deemphasizing its partnership with the league in its commercials.)

The earnings call undoubtedly tees up more denunciations of this kind from aggrieved sponsors, assuming they are suffering similar downturns and are similarly unsatisfied by the league's approach. More than that, though, this moment is one in which the model professional sports league now faces unprecedented pressure.

For years, the NFL was the league to emulate. Its broadcast packages were the most valuable commodity in television, not least because they were chock-full of satisfied sponsors' commercials. The league locked out players and referees in consecutive seasons and was no worse off. While Goodell personally aggravated fans with his approach to discipline, the NFL itself paid no great reputational price. All the while its owners made out like bandits. 

But now that the going is tough, who will speak up on behalf of the besieged league? Who will note that political protest, like domestic violence before it, is above the league's pay grade? Who will explain that the “debacle” cannot possibly be “nipped in the bud,” not now, not ever?

These questions came to mind last week when the Washington Capitals and the National Hockey League eluded major opprobrium despite a superstar's expression of truly ugly political views. Alexander Ovechkin, the Caps' captain and three-time Hart Trophy winner, announced on Instagram on Nov. 2 that he was creating a social movement in support of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who will likely stand for reelection to his office in March. He called it the Putin Team. 

According to a translation published in the Washington Post, Ovechkin wrote: “I’m certain that there are many of us that support Vladimir Putin. Let’s unite and show everyone a strong and united Russia. Today, I want to announce a social movement in the name of Putin Team. Be a part of this team—to me it’s a privilege, it’s like the feeling of when you put on the jersey of the Russian team, knowing that the whole country is rooting for you.”

There are indeed many that support Putin: Such are the spoils of a country where the state media circumscribes political discourse, and the sitting government determines who can and cannot stand for election. Alexei Navalny, a prominent leader of the Russian opposition who has vowed to run against Putin in 2018, has been jailed three times this year already. Under Putin's rule, Russia has cracked down on the free press, ethnic minorities, and gay rights. And throughout 2016 Russia pursued a program of cyber warfare to destabilize American democracy.

When asked about his movement after a game, Ovechkin said that it "wasn't about political stuff... I just support my president and just support my country because I’m from there." What a cop-out.

If the NHL were anything like the NFL, the Ovechkin matter would be top of mind, but the league isn't, so his pro-Putin stance isn't, either.

A drawback of accumulating great power is that one day you may be held accountable for the way you chose to wield it. The NFL has learned that lesson this fall. Someday maybe Putin will too.