Papa John’s Down, NFL Ratings Up

by Rick Johnson

And yet another Domino has fallen (cheap pun), in the latest saga of Papa John’s and its outspoken founder John Schnatter. It all started last November 2017, when the CEO commented that the NFL was to blame for its sluggish sales due to declining ratings and its failure to punish “those” protesting players. Within four weeks amongst a public relations nightmare, the stock dropped a whopping 20%.

By December John Schnatter was forced to step down as CEO, to be replaced by Steve Ritchie, the former COO. Apparently Papa John’s board wasn’t too pleased when his conflict with the NFL sparked a new sponsor, a white supremacist publication called The Daily Stormer. And now we’ve come to find, the NFL has cut all ties with Papa John’s as a sponsor and partnered with its closest competitor Pizza Hut, just in time for the 2018 NFL Draft.

The NFL making such a move has been a great PR move, as the perception of distancing itself from the outspoken right wing CEO’s is seen as “one for the people and players.” But it gets better – now it appears the NFL ratings were really not that bad after all, relatively speaking. This further underscores the truth that Papa John’s was way out of bounds and deserved the flag thrown by the NFL via ending the 10 year relationship.

Last year the news media published that NFL Ratings were down attributing it to player protest fatigue. Adding to these assumptions was the fact many fans were not pleased with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ezekiel Elliott situation. A process that made Goodell judge, juror, and executioner. But how many fans were really tuning out the NFL in places like Chicago?  What else is there to do in Chicago, in November, on a cold Sunday afternoon? Da Bears.

In the age of overly social media, once we hear news stories , we tend not to sweat the little details. The tweet on the NFL’s declining ratings was all that we needed to hear. Any additional information that can’t fit into our little Facebook message box is simply fluff. But as the saying goes, the devil is truly in the detail.  You see, it takes a while for the official Nielsen data to be compiled. This is used to paint a clearer picture for advertisers and media professionals prior to what is called the “upfronts”, an annual media buying conference held in the springtime.

Nielsen provided a quick reality check once the data was in with a brief statement that.. “while NFL ratings are down, they are still top dog…by a long shot”. The following was reported in the January edition of Ad Age following Nielsen’s annual report to the industry-

“Despite losing 9 percent of its year-ago audience and coming under attack from both sides of the political spectrum, the NFL in 2017 continued to cast a long shadow over the media landscape.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, NFL games accounted for 37 of the year’s top 50 broadcasts, or nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of the most-watched programs on TV. That marked a 32 percent increase compared to 2016, when the NFL laid claim to 28 of the top 50 most-watched programs, and was flat versus the 37 top airings the league chalked up in the previous year.

(That the NFL’s dominance appeared to wilt somewhat in 2016 had much to do with the fact that 11 of that year’s most-viewed broadcasts were notched by NBC’s coverage of the Rio Summer Olympics.)

“NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” which remained the No. 2 NFL window with an average delivery of 18.2 million viewers and a 10.3 household rating, accounted for six of 2017’s top 50 broadcasts. And while that marked an 11 percent drop from the year-ago 20.4 million viewers and 11.4 rating, the margin separating “Sunday Night Football” from its general-entertainment competition is only widening. In eight head-to-head fall matchups, NBC’s premiere NFL showcase averaged a 6.5 rating in the target demo, which works out to 8.38 million adults 18-49; by comparison, AMC‘s “The Walking Dead” drew a 3.8, or around 4.9 million members of the dollar demo”. – Ad Age January 2018 Nielsen Report


So what does all this mean? It means the NFL is getting 700 large ($700k) for a 3o second spot from advertisers.  Does the NFL have issues, absolutely. It goes without saying the Roger Goodell needs to get his house in order, which is why the Papa John’s situation was perceived as a step in the right direction by many. He also needs to take on a leadership role versus that of an enforcer or lieutenant of the player police. Let’s not leave out the refs, whose calls at times can be a little suspicious to say the least.

Yet despite all the room for improvement it’s a simple reminder of just how resilient mega brands can be- and the NFL is a 500 lb. gorilla mega brand.  The NFL is no different than a Nike, or Amazon, or a Disney whom have all faced their own uphill battles. Imagine how the folks at Disney felt when this small company called Pixar upstaged them at their own game of animation. The pain was so bad that McDonald’s did an NFL type of move, and kicked Disney out the door and signed Pixar.

But the game of marketing is not unlike football, where comebacks and interceptions are common. Speaking of which McDonald’s just announced it’s reunion back with Disney after a 10 year hiatus. Now that’s a comeback Tom Brady could certainly appreciate I’m sure.


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