US pizza firm hopes to score with NBA star Shaq


New York (AFP)

American pizza chain Papa John's, struggling since its chairman resigned over a comment maligning black people, on Friday named former basketball star Shaquille O'Neal to its board in hopes of boosting the firm's fortunes.

"Shaq" will be an ambassador for the brand, Papa John's CEO Steve Ritchie said on the CNBC business channel.

The NBA Hall of Famer will also take a stake of about 30 percent in nine Atlanta outlets of the company, which says it is the world's third-largest pizza deliverer.

Ritchie expressed hope that the arrival of Shaq -- who won three NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers and one with the Miami Heat -- would help revitalize the chain whose sales have fallen since last summer.

In July, Papa John's founder John Schnatter resigned as chairman after a Forbes report that he used the N-word during a conference call. The word is a highly offensive slur referring to blacks.

"They want me to become the first African American on the board and I thought it was great," O'Neal confirmed on CNBC.

"We want to create a culture there now where people are loved, welcome and accepted."

Schnatter's resignation came months after an earlier controversy led him to step down as chief executive.

Echoing a stance of US President Donald Trump, he had criticized National Football League players for national anthem protests over racial injustice by police.

Schnatter blamed the NFL protests for declining viewership, which he said hurt pizza sales.

He remains the biggest shareholder of the pizza company, which has about 5,000 restaurants in 45 countries.

The investment fund Starboard Value took control of Papa John's in early February. Starboard's chairman Jeffrey Smith took on the same position at the pizza company, and several new people joined the board of directors.

Since retiring from professional basketball in 2011, Shaq has made a name as a TV commentator and businessman who has invested in other restaurants including burger and hot dog chain Five Guys, as well as "Shaquille's," which opened this year in Los Angeles.

Asked if the pizza firm could be renamed "Papa Shaq" in his name, he laughed and said there would be a new item on the menu: "Shaqaroni."

Papa John's gained four percent to $48.85 on the New York Stock Exchange following the news.