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Papa John's, NFL end sponsorship agreement after anthem protest controversy

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Papa John’s and the NFL are severing their official relationship. (Rob Kim/Getty Images)

The NFL is in the market for a new official pizza.

After the better part of a decade, the league and Papa John’s have mutually agreed to end their sponsorship agreement; the company, however, will continue local partnerships with 22 NFL teams, according to a joint statement.

“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 Tuesday to discuss the company’s quarterly earnings.

Papa John’s became the official pizza of the league in 2010, and until the 2017 season, that relationship appeared to be a happy one for both sides. But in November, Papa John’s founder John Schnatter, who has since stepped down as CEO, blamed the national anthem protests by NFL players for sagging sales and said “poor leadership” at the top of the league was to blame. Ritchie, then the company’s president and chief operating officer, added that, as the NFL’s most recognized sponsor, its success was linked to the league’s and that he expected the sales slump “to persist” until “a solution is put in place” by the NFL for its player protests.

The company’s stock plummeted following those comments, and Papa John’s apologized less than two weeks after Schnatter’s initial comments, saying they were not intended to be “divisive.” Along with outrage and ridicule over the comments, Papa John’s had been named the official pizza of the alt-right by the Daily Stormer.

“We will work with the players and league to find a positive way forward,” Papa John’s said on Twitter. “Open to ideas from all. Except neo-Nazis — [middle-finger emoji] those guys.”

That way forward, apparently, will be with individual teams rather than the league itself. Nearly every NFL team had at least one player stage a form of protest during the anthem during last season, but some have been more actively involved than others. Many were prompted to take action after President Trump’s remarks last September, when he called on NFL owners to fire those who protested.

Schnatter donated $1,000 to Trump’s 2016 campaign but did not publicly endorse the president. Papa John’s reported during Tuesday’s conference call that North American sales were down 3.9 percent from a year ago. The stock has lost a third of its value since June, according to CNN Money, including a 6 percent drop Tuesday.

Schnatter, who stepped aside from his role leading the company on Jan. 1, had planned to pursue “personal passion for entrepreneurship, leadership development and education,” the company said in December.

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