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Peyton Manning just deepened Papa John's divorce from the NFL

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Peyton Manning, the biggest celebrity endorser of Papa John’s pizza, is signaling a public split from the brand.

Manning sold all of his 31 stakes in Denver-area Papa John’s franchises last month, news that only just came out on Tuesday when reported by The Denver Post. Manning dumped the stores just two days before Papa John’s announced it would no longer be the “official pizza” of the NFL.

Manning is still a Papa John’s endorser “as part of his long-term agreement” with the brand, company spokesperson Pete Collins says. So you might think his personal financial move should have no major impact on the company.

But Manning’s exit as a franchisee has larger significance.

For eight years, Papa John’s was the pizza of pro football in America. The marketing copy on a 2015 Papa John’s ad spot reads: “Papa tells us the thing he loves most about football. Spoiler alert: it’s pizza.”

Now, in under three months, the relationship has imploded. In November, “Papa” John Schnatter blamed flat pizza sales on NFL player protests; two weeks later, the company apologized and distanced itself from his comments; in December, he resigned as CEO; and in February, Papa John’s relinquished its sponsorship of the NFL, replaced by Pizza Hut.

L-R: Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, “Papa” John Schnatter, and JJ Watt in a 2015 Papa John’s commercial. (YouTube)

Papa John’s is now facing a major rebranding opportunity it would be wise to take.

Schnatter and Manning have been the two most prominent faces in Papa John’s commercials for years. But Schnatter is no longer the CEO, and Manning is no longer a franchisee. Schnatter made divisive political comments that led to his brand being labeled the “official pizza of the alt-right.” And now Pizza Hut is the “official pizza” of the NFL. Where does that leave Papa John’s?

Even though Manning is still an official spokesperson, as is Houston Texans linebacker JJ Watt, and even though Papa John’s says it still has marketing partnerships with 22 individual teams, don’t be surprised if you soon notice Papa John’s quietly distancing itself from football in its advertising. (The company did not answer question about its marketing plans.)

Subway had to go through a similar marketing overhaul after its spokesperson Jared Fogle was indicted on child porn charges. Chipotle is desperate to fix its image after multiple health scares. Papa John’s must now do the same, and do it without football.

Papa John’s, Domino’s Pizza, and Yum Brands shares over the past 12 months, as of Mar. 7, 2018.

As an example of how to rebrand successfully, Papa John’s doesn’t need to look further than its own competitor, Domino’s.

While Papa John’s and Pizza Hut were fighting over the NFL, Domino’s was improving the quality of its pizza, and its shares are up 18% in the last 12 months. Papa John’s shares are down 22% in the same time period.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more:

How Papa John’s lost the NFL pizza war

Papa John’s, Keurig, and Under Armour: Brands could not escape politics in 2017

Pizza Hut counters Papa John’s claim that NFL is hurting pizza sales

How NFL sponsors are reacting to Trump’s national anthem crusade

How Trump is using the NFL and ESPN as political tools