Why Does Pizza Hut Want an NFL Sponsorship When Papa John’s Doesn’t?

Slipping viewers aside, it's still a big pie

Pizza Hut’s deal opened up only after the NFL’s longtime pizza partner Papa John’s ended its own deal three years early. Instagram: @pizzahut

According to a 2013 survey, 37 percent of Americans who watch football like to eat pizza while they’re doing it. And, using the statistic of 16.5 million people who tuned in to watch the average NFL game in 2016, that roughly adds up to about 6 million people who have pizza on the mind while watching a game.

That’s a lot of pizza. And, no doubt, it’s also among the motivators behind Pizza Hut’s decision to sign on as official pizza sponsor of the NFL, a deal announced earlier today.

“NFL stadiums are packed every week, but tens of millions of fans are also watching the game at home,” Pizza Hut U.S. president Artie Starrs said on the Pizza Hut blog. “We have an unmatched ability to bring those fans closer to the sport, thanks to the power of our 7,500 restaurants and 150,000 football-crazed team members. The capacity for what’s possible is endless.”

Well, it’s certainly big—but endless?

It’s worth pointing out that the door for Pizza Hut’s deal opened up only after the NFL’s longtime pizza partner Papa John’s ended its own deal—three years early—on Feb. 27. Papa John’s said it was a “mutual decision,” though it’s hard to discount former CEO John Schnatter’s now-infamous comments during a Nov. 1 analyst call that blamed the chain’s slipping sales on the NFL—specifically, on the league’s alleged failure to manage the controversy generated by players kneeling during the National Anthem.

“We’re certainly disappointed that the NFL and its leadership did not resolve the ongoing situation to the satisfaction of all parties long ago,” Schnatter said.

A storm of controversy followed the chief executive’s comments, and Schnatter apologized before stepping down as CEO on Dec. 21.

Setting aside the issue of whether or not kneeling players cost Papa John’s in pizza sales, it’s beyond question that the NFL’s viewership has been slipping. According to a Jan. 28 research report from MoffettNathanson, the NFL’s gross ratings points were down 13 percent overall. As analyst Michael Nathanson explained it, “the NFL is experiencing a structural decline in viewership, and it’s going to be an issue.”

Sports and media pundits have speculated that the drop in viewership could be due to anything from aversion generated by the concussion issue to the simple fact that these days, Americans have plenty of ways to amuse themselves that don’t involve sitting in front of a television.

Nevertheless, Pizza Hut—which is reportedly paying more for its sponsorship deal than Papa John’s did—is clearly focused on the still-substantially large pie that football fans represent. Rosen called the chain’s NFL deal a “tremendous opening for a brand and product that is so nearly aligned with the football-watching occasion like pizza and Pizza Hut.”

And he has a point. Super Bowl Sunday remains the busiest day of the year for the pizza segment, according to the National Restaurant Association, with Pizza Hut selling somewhere around 2 million pies. Pizza Hut has also been building out its digital infrastructure—it now offers one-button reordering, text updates and tracking—and these improvements are certainly in step with a customer base that’s hungry and glued to the game.

There’s also a bit of anecdotal evidence that Pizza Hut already enjoys a certain affinity with the NFL—not just fans, but players. Late last year, the Washington Post asked 15 Washington Redskins players to anonymously name their favorite pizza chains. The winner, by a pepperoni length, was the Hut.

@UpperEastRob robert.klara@adweek.com Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.