The pizza franchise Papa John’s announced Thursday that its chief executive, who recently blamed declining sales on the National Football League’s handling of the national anthem controversy, will step down from the position at the end of the month.
Under the leadership of the chief executive, John Schnatter, who started selling pizzas in 1984 in the back of his father’s Indiana tavern, Papa John’s grew into one of the top-selling pizza delivery companies in the country. He has also held an outsized role, often starring in the company’s commercials and delivering its signature line, “Better ingredients, better pizza.”
But Mr. Schnatter thrust his company into an uncomfortable and highly-political spotlight last month when he remarked about a dip in pizza sales. He cast some blame on the N.F.L., which has a sponsorship deal with Papa John’s, over the national anthem protests by some football players.
“The N.F.L. has hurt us by not resolving the current debacle to the players’ and owners’ satisfaction,” Mr. Schnatter, 56, said on Nov. 1 during a conference call with investors. “N.F.L. leadership has hurt Papa John’s shareholders.”
In an interview on Thursday evening, a spokesman for Papa John’s did not directly answer whether Mr. Schnatter’s comments about the N.F.L. played a role in his decision to step down. But the spokesman, Peter Collins, said that it was the right time for Steve Ritchie, 43, the company’s president and chief operating officer, to become the next chief executive. Mr. Schnatter will remain as chairman of the company’s board.
Pizza is big business during football games, but the TV viewership has dropped from last season. President Trump has blamed the lower ratings on the anthem protests, and Mr. Schnatter said during the conference call that Roger Goodell, the league commissioner, should have handled the situation faster.
“Leadership starts at the top, and this is an example of poor leadership,” Mr. Schnattner said.
His comments about the N.F.L. protests won the praise of white supremacists, and Papa John’s responded by saying it did not want white supremacists or their groups buying its pizzas.
Under Mr. Schnatter, Papa John’s became one of the top pizza chains in the United States, but its stock price has tumbled in the past year, falling by nearly one-third to $59.23 per share, as of Thursday.
Mr. Ritchie will take over as chief executive officer on Jan. 1. He started at Papa John’s in 1996 as a customer service representative, the company said. Papa John’s has more than 3,400 locations in the United States and Canada.
“This was the right time for Steve, who has been with Papa John’s for 21 years and started as an hourly employee, to step into the CEO role,” the spokesman, Peter Collins, said in an email. “We want to focus on what we do best — our people and our pizza.”