NBA great and internationally recognised sports star Shaquille O’Neal has a long and sometimes baffling history of side projects. At various points throughout his career, the former LA, Miami, Cleveland and Boston centre has hosted TV shows, released rap albums and even become a reserve police officer with the Los Angeles Port Police. There aren’t many pies into which he hasn’t inserted his fingers. His latest career move, however, takes this metaphor to a whole new level.
Last week, in an unprecedented move, embattled pizza delivery giants “Papa John's” announced that, as part of a new public relations push, the NBA Hall-of-Famer will become the first black man to the board of directors. The announcement also revealed that, as part of the deal, O’Neal would be taking over nine different franchises in the city of Atlanta. Finally, Big Shaq and pizza have been brought together.
O’Neal’s new role will involve acting as chief brand ambassador for Papa John's, appearing in commercials and billboards up and down the country. For his new services to delivery pizza, Papa John’s state that O’Neal will be paid a whopping $8.25 million over three years. Jeff Smith, current chairman of Papa John's board of directors, dismissed the idea that the sum was excessive, saying, “Shaquille has an excellent entrepreneurial background, including as a restaurant franchise owner, and is a natural creative marketer."
Mention of O’Neal’s previous history with the restaurant industry may come as a shock to some who know him only from his days on the court. However, despite its very limited overlap with basketball, he has shown himself to be a more than capable entrepreneur and business owner. He currently owns a Krispy Kreme franchise in Atlanta, a “Big Chicken” restaurant in Las Vegas, as well as his eponymous “Shaquille’s” eatery in Los Angeles. Though this represents his first venture into the pizza sector, O’Neal’s pedigree should stand him in good stead.
If his reaction to the news is anything to go by, O’Neal himself is feeling positively buoyant about the new relationship. In a letter to the press, the ex-player revealed how he first understood "what truly makes the Papa John’s family so special" during a charity event last year, where he was not only able to meet the team, but also create his own "Shaq-eroni" pizza - a riff on the sausage-topped classic.
As exciting as the new announcement undoubtedly is, Papa John's investors will be hoping it marks a significant turnaround after what has been a difficult 12 months for the company. Controversy around racist remarks made by founder and former CEO John Schattner sparked a dramatic decline in profits and an extremely disappointing 2018, which ultimately led to Schattner’s dismissal and plummeting share prices. With Big Shaq onside, this may be the year where one of America’s biggest pizza producers finally gets back on track.