SAN FRANCISCO, Feb 2 (Reuters) - When Americans snack on pizza, beer and guacamole this Sunday as they watch the Philadelphia Eagles square off against the New England Patriots, the Super Bowl will not be the only contest going on in their living rooms.
Companies long associated with Super Bowl staples and their ingredients, including Papa John's International and Anheuser Busch InBev, are locked in their own competitions to beat rivals and win the favor of customers and investors.
Shares of Papa John's International have dropped 23 percent over the past year as its status as the "official pizza sponsor" of National Football League and the Super Bowl has changed from a benefit to a liability.
In November, Papa John's founder and then-Chief Executive John Schnatter blamed its lukewarm pizza sales on the league's handling of players' national-anthem protests against racial inequality. The player controversy has hurt the NFL's already dwindling TV viewership. Schnatter's comments generated a huge backlash on social media, prompting the company to apologize, and it later announced Schnatter's resignation.
"The NFL's popularity is on the decline, and Papa John's is associated with them," said BTIG analyst Peter Saleh. "The NFL partnership is no longer benefiting them, and it's something they're still under contract for."
Larger rival Domino's Pizza is also switching leaders, with Chief Executive Patrick Doyle set to step down in June. Doyle presided over a successful turnaround and led the industry in leveraging data analytics to boost sales, earning him acclaim on Wall Street. His replacement by Richard Allison, currently president of Domino's international business, may create uncertainty among investors.
Domino's is expected by analysts to post 8 percent revenue growth in 2018, compared to growth under 2 percent at Papa John's. Domino's is also trading at a higher valuation, equivalent to 27 times expected earnings, versus Papa John's valuation of 22 times earnings.
Guacamole is a staple living room snack on Super Bowl Sunday, with consumers spending $62 million on avocados, the dip's main ingredient, in the two weeks leading up to last year's game, according to Nielson.
Add to that, the fruit's popularity among U.S. millennials, a key demographic, and investors may do well look at Limoneira , which grows the fruit, and Calavo Growers Inc , which markets and distributes it.
"Fresh food is growing quickly, and within fruits and vegetables, avocado is one of the leaders," said Lake Street Capital Markets analyst Chris Krueger, who has "buy" recommendations on Calavo and Limoneira. He noted that recent price increases for avocados should be positive for Calavo.
The CEOs of both companies sit on each other's boards and their headquarters are close neighbors in Santa Paula, California.
Double-digit sales expansion has helped push Calavo's stock up 58 percent in the past year, and all four analysts who cover it recommend buying. However, its recent rally has left Calavo trading at 29 times expected earnings, which is above its own five-year average of 23.
Shares of Limoneira, which grows lemons and is also the largest U.S. avocado producer, dropped in December as strong winds blew a wildfire through prime avocado growing country in Southern California.
But Limoneira has said its crops escaped significant damage, and it expects to increase its operating income by at least 32 percent in fiscal 2018. Limoneira's stock remains down 15 percent from before the California blazes broke out in December.
Anheuser-Busch InBev's Budweiser commercials have long been a Super Bowl mainstay, but the world's largest brewer faces growing competition from smaller, younger rivals offering IPAs and other premium beers to drinkers with increasingly discriminating taste buds. U.S. consumers spent $1.3 billion on beer in the two weeks ahead of last year's Super Bowl, including $166 million on craft brews, according to Nielson.
Smaller rivals Craft Brew Alliance, which makes Kona, and Boston Beer Company, which sells Samuel Adams, have seen their stocks surge over 20 percent in the past year.
But those gains have left Craft Brew Alliance trading at 56 times expected earnings and Boston Beer Company at 27 times earnings, potentially expensive valuations. Meanwhile, AB InBev has snapped up 10 U.S. craft brewers in the past decade, and its stock is trading at a less expensive 22 times expected earnings. (Reporting by Noel Randewich; Editing by Alistair Bell)