Even if Papa John’s is scapegoating the NFL, Roger Goodell and league should be alarmed

For weeks now, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell thirsted for this kind of break. Nine consecutive days of league-related silence from President Donald Trump. Free of Twitter rants. No inflammatory speeches or off-the-cuff interviews. Such a blissful reprieve from Trump’s political theater would have been unthinkable not long ago.

Nine quiet days later, Trump is suddenly the least of Goodell’s problems.

With Papa John’s trashing of league leadership in a Wednesday earnings call with investors, a new low has arrived. And with Goodell’s next contract still unresolved, it’s fair to wonder if the future of the commissioner is on shaky ground.

The latest figure to sound off on Roger Goodell's leadership as NFL commissioner: one of the league's top sponsors. (AP)
The latest figure to sound off on Roger Goodell’s leadership as NFL commissioner: one of the league’s top sponsors. (AP)

This is what happens when a litany of problems cuts across every conceivable plateau. Goodell is grappling with this on a seemingly unrelenting basis. One needs only to move beyond Trump for a moment to see pressurized cracks of discontent spreading across the NFL like the crawling fractures of a chipped windshield. From players to fans … fans to ratings … ratings to owners … owners to Goodell. And now, as if the discord of that fundamental ecosystem wasn’t enough, from the entire NFL product to Wall Street.

Wednesday was really bad for Goodell because even the happy-go-lucky pizza guy – Mr. Papa John’s himself – publicly turned on the NFL. And he did it with all his stockholders and the larger financial community listening. In an earnings call for investors that would send a cannon ball through the wood panels of every NFL ownership office.

“The NFL has hurt us by not resolving the current [protest] debacle to the players’ and owners’ satisfaction,” said John Schnatter, the Papa John’s CEO who famously appears on the company’s litany of game-day advertisements. “NFL leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders. … Leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership.”

That banging you hear right now isn’t the shots fired by a pizza chain synonymous with the NFL brand. It’s the sound of ownership groups collectively falling out of their plush leather chairs.

The NFL has hurt us …

That’s not a message from a few dozen players. It’s not a growing mass of disenfranchised fans screaming on Twitter and the comment sections of stories. It’s not even the President of the United States. No, this is a business partner who has paid tens of millions since 2010 to be the “Official Pizza Sponsor of the NFL and Super Bowl.” It’s Papa Freaking John. The guy who clowns around with Peyton Manning and chisels that “Better ingredients. Better Pizza.” slogan into the deepest folds of your brain.

Regardless of whether you eat the pizza or not, that’s a big sponsor. From a visibility standpoint, it’s right up there with being the NFL’s official beer and auto sponsor. And it’s arguably even more recognizable than any other because pizza is sold as an integral part of the NFL experience, and almost everybody in America knows what the Papa John’s product is.

Worse for Goodell, most Americans, even those who don’t invest in the stock market, have some idea who Papa John is. Largely because of his placement as the centerpiece of the pizza chain’s commercials, the average person in the United States can grasp the idea of Papa John calling out the NFL. He’s not some suit in a boardroom. This is like Ronald McDonald ripping someone. It gets everyone’s attention. And most especially, it gets the attention of the people who are dividing up millions of dollars paid by the pizza guy.

More than even Trump, this is what NFL owners have feared. That the advertisers or sponsors would turn on them. That fan discontent could get so sour that the league’s business partners would pick up their torches and pitchforks and head toward the Park Avenue offices like they were preparing to storm the Bastille.

What makes this scary for the NFL is that Papa John’s might be using the league as a convenient excuse for a poor sales outlook. That’s largely what shaved off nearly $70 million in stock value this week – the fact that Papa John’s reported that it expected forward sales to dip. That guidance scared investors, who then responded with a little selloff.

Papa John's CEO John Schnatter (left), pictured with Archie Manning (middle) and Deshaun Watson, made his company's presence felt at Radio Row during Super Bowl week in February. (AP)
Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter (left), pictured with Archie Manning (middle) and Deshaun Watson, made his company’s presence felt at Radio Row during Super Bowl week in February. (AP)

The truth is, there is an element of guessing inside the criticism from Papa John’s. If fewer fans are watching NFL games, fewer fans are seeing Papa John’s commercials. And connecting the eat-what-you-see dots, that might mean fewer fans will be finding reasons to order a Papa John’s pizza in the coming months. That seems like a sound inference, but Papa John’s hasn’t rolled out science to support that conclusion. Instead, it is pinning some of its potential future business struggles on that assessment. And for the NFL, that’s scary because the opportunity is there.

Maybe the public is simply cooling on the Papa John’s product. Maybe the pizza game is a tough space to keep growing and selling without setbacks. But why admit that when the opportunity is there to point at the NFL and say, “These guys are part of the problem.” Is it that far-fetched to believe Papa John’s is using the league as a platform to distract from its own product problems? Sort of the same way Trump has co-opted the NFL as a convenient distraction? It’s possible. Particularly considering Papa John has aligned himself with Trump, not only donating to his campaign, but even railing (like Trump) against government involvement in business.

The deeper point here is that Papa John’s is an NFL partner, and it took an opportunity to blame some of its own woes on the league – whether legitimate or not. That catches the eye of owners. And it will ultimately fall into the lap of Goodell, who has yet to marshal a solution to quell negativity surrounding the social protests of players. As San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York once famously said: You don’t fire owners.

But you can definitely fire commissioners. Regardless of the firestorms started by guys like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones or Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, the most senior expendable person in the room is Roger Goodell. Whether he’s responsible or not, he’ll take the blame.

That’s part of why his dragging contract extension has become so intriguing. The language defining his next stint – including whatever incentives the owners build into a deal – is coming in the midst of roiling drama. Aside from the latest issue with Papa John’s, consider some of the issues that have taken root during Goodell’s tenure.

The league has suffered significantly poor publicity over its handling of concussions. There was a spate of ugly domestic violence incidents that were horribly mismanaged by the league and/or owners. There have been multiple high-profile federal court battles with star players. The most embarrassing of which focused on Tom Brady, who has a chance to retire as the greatest player in league history. And lest we forget, Goodell has somehow become so generally loathed that when he steps to the podium to kick off each NFL draft, he gets booed mercilessly regardless of the location.

Now there’s Trump. There are NFL fans who want to boycott over player activism. There’s Colin Kaepernick. There are NFL fans who want to boycott over Kaepernick’s absence. There are player protests with no end in sight. And there is a looming labor negotiation that could be the nastiest fight in league history.

In some way, shape or form, Goodell can and will be held responsible for all of that. Papa John’s proved as much Wednesday. When the league’s own business partners lose faith, the owners listen. And when the happy-go-lucky pizza guy turns on the NFL, there’s only one question left to ask.

Who’s next?

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