Is Shaq a Slam Dunk for Papa John's?

By Barbara Wenger
April 8, 2019

NBA Hall-of-Famer Shaquille O’Neal joins the board of embattled Papa John and becomes a paid endorser for the pizza chain.

O’Neal is also investing in nine Atlanta-area Papa John’s pizza restaurants in a joint venture deal where the company will own approximately 70% and O’Neal will own approximately 30%.

“This is a triple threat opportunity for me. I am excited to join the board and to help lead from the top, while also investing in nine stores in my home town of Atlanta and being an ambassador for the brand,” says O’Neal. “I look forward to working with my colleagues on the board and using my experience in business and community to build on the progress being made at Papa John’s.”

The former basketball star is no stranger to the food industry. He currently owns a Krispy Kreme Doughnuts franchise in Atlanta and previously owned 27 Five Guys Burgers and Fries franchises. He is the founder and owner of Big Chicken, a fast, casual fried chicken restaurant in Las Vegas, and Shaquille’s, a fine dining restaurant in Los Angeles.

“Shaquille has an excellent entrepreneurial background, including as a restaurant franchise owner, and is a natural creative marketer,” says Papa John’s Chairman Jeff Smith. “Shaquille has demonstrated great success through understanding the customer value proposition with product and brand differentiation. The board and I are excited to work with Shaquille and look forward to the terrific possibilities to strengthen our position together.”

Indeed, Papa John’s and its board are in need of some public strengthening after a long battle with the company’s founder John Schnatter.

He continuously put his fellow board members in awkward spots by fighting for control of the company. But last month, he finally appeared to be letting go.

According to a Wall Street Journal report, Schnatter, has “agreed to leave the pizza chain’s board in exchange for helping name his replacement. He also agreed to withdraw a lawsuit in a Delaware court where he claimed the company failed to disclose documents he requested after resigning as chairman.”

Corporate governance experts saw this as a victory for the company and shareholders, and gave kudos to the board’s actions.

It’s unclear if the addition of O’Neal will help get things on the right track.

“Let’s be real. Papa John’s is excited right now. They have Shaquille O’Neal as somebody who is willing to jump into the fire with them,” said Stephanie Creary, a Wharton management professor who specializes in identity and diversity issues in an article and podcast about his appointment on Knowledge@Wharton’s site. “This is just the beginning for Papa John’s. What I’m hoping is that years from now, they’ll still be able to claim this incident as being a catalyst for the work that they’ve done, because what are consumers going to remember? They’re going to remember if Papa John’s tries to sweep [its recent controversy] under the rug.”

O’Neal played for six teams throughout his 19-year NBA career and was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016. The four-time NBA champion and television sports analyst on Inside the NBA has established a track record as an investor, restaurateur and franchise owner.

He is a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise. O’Neal has released four rap albums, appeared in numerous films and has starred in his own reality shows. Philanthropically, O’Neal’s relationship with the Boys & Girls Club of America dates back to his youth in New Jersey. As a national spokesman for the Club, he has participated in campaigns with the non-profit company for the past 15 years.