The new face of Papa John's Pizza: Shaq

Shaquille O’Neal is joining the Papa John’s board of directors and has inked a deal to be the company’s brand ambassador.

“In addition to his business acumen, Shaquille understands how to build lasting connections with consumers and energize employees,” said Papa John’s president and CEO Steve Ritchie. 

Friday’s news is the latest in a string of changes for the world’s third-largest pizza chain, which is still working to remake its image in the wake of scandal.

The company was rocked in July 2018 after news reports surfaced that founder and chairman John Schnatter used a racial slur during a media training session. 

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The news came about eight months after Schnatter’s remarks blaming poor sales on the NFL’s handling of protests during the national anthem.

Stocks plummeted and Schnatter soon disappeared from television and promotional materials, as the company attempted to distance itself from its chief pitchman.

Now, O’Neal has signed a marketing agreement with the company, which has more than 5,000 stores and 1,200 employees.

Retired Hall of Fame basketball player Shaquille O'Neal smiles as he talks to reporters during an NBA basketball news conference in Miami on Dec. 22, 2016. (Photo: Alan Diaz, AP)

“I have truly enjoyed the high-quality Papa John’s product for years and am excited to be able to help Papa John’s raise their game to new heights,” O’Neal said in a statement. “Papa John’s is building a better culture, and I want to be a part of improving the Company from the inside out.”

It’s unclear what form that marketing agreement will take, though Shaq has long been the public face of many companies. 

In addition to his lengthy NBA career spanning from 1992 until 2011, he’s taken his large personality off the court with ventures in music, film and television. 

The NBA Hall of Famer can already be seen on television as an analyst on Inside The NBA and as a spokesperson for a variety of products, including IcyHot, Carnival cruises and The General insurance.

No stranger to the restaurant industry, O’Neal is the founder and owner of Big Chicken, a fried chicken restaurant in Las Vegas, and Shaquille’s, a restaurant in Los Angeles. 

He’s also the owner of a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts franchise in Atlanta, and as part of his pizza partnership he’ll become an investor in nine Papa John’s restaurants in the Atlanta area.

“We are thrilled to partner with Shaquille and welcome him to the Papa John’s Board,” said Jeff Smith, chairman of the Papa John’s board. “Shaquille has an excellent entrepreneurial background, including as a restaurant franchise owner, and is a natural creative marketer.”

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Smith was named chairman of the board of directors last month after company executives agreed to sell a $200 million stake to Starboard Value, a New York-based investment fund that Smith leads. 

O’Neal’s entry comes on the heels of a deal struck with Schnatter earlier this month that avoided an all-out public battle over his membership on the board. 

John Schnatter, founder of Papa John's Pizza. – Oct. 2, 2017 (Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr./The Courier Journal )

While a special committee of the company’s directors eventually forced Schnatter out as chairman, he remained on the board. He still owns 9.9 million shares, a 26 percent stake in the company. 

Per the agreement, Schnatter agreed to resign from the board of directors while retaining a say in picking his successor. 

He also agreed to drop a lawsuit pending in Delaware that challenged a provision that prevented him from “acting in concert” with other shareholders.

While company leadership has made a number of changes, including a new customer loyalty program and revised menu items, Papa John’s continues to struggle to emerge from the scandal.

Last month, the company reported a drop in North American sales of 7.3 percent for the year and 8.1 percent for the fourth quarter of 2018.

Full year net income declined from $94.7 million in 2017 to $22.8 million last year.

“This will take time,” Ritchie, the company’s CEO, told analysts last month.

The Courier Journal previously reported that re-branding and reinvention cost the company more than $51 million in special charges last year, including $15.4 million going to help ailing franchisees. 

Papa John’s predicted last month it would spend an additional $30 million to $50 million in the first half of this year.

Ritchie has said he’s confident the strategy will work in the long run, despite the short-term pain.

Reporter Grace Schneider contributed to this story. Reporter Matthew Glowicki can be reached at 502-582-4989 or

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