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December 5, 2023

Chicken and Carnival Cruise Lines: A Tale on How Shaq Built his Business Empire

​Shaq shooting a free-throw in an NBA game| Keith Allison | January 26, 2009 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

After gathering numerous accolades like Sec Player of the Year and National Player of the Year and setting crazy records both for LSU and the NCAA, McDonald’s All-American Shaquille O’Neal had a successful three seasons at LSU.1 This success propelled him into the National Basketball Association (NBA), where he was selected as the first overall pick by the Orlando Magic in the 1992 NBA Draft. After getting drafted by the Magic, he signed a deal with Reebok worth $15 million over a multi-year contract, making it one of the largest newcomer endorsement deals at the time. The partnership between Shaq and Reebok was significant because it helped elevate his profile as a marketable athlete and established him as a brand ambassador for the company. His endorsement deal with Reebok was a precursor to many more lucrative endorsement contracts for Shaquille O’Neal over the course of his career.2

O’Neal was one of many NBA superstars who could make money off of their name and image. It is a common belief amongst people that NBA players are set up for the rest of their lives when they sign their six-, seven-, or even eight-figure contract to play. However, after these deals, the money can quickly deplete, leaving NBA players broke. Grim statistics show that 60% of NBA players go broke within five years of leaving the league.3 Two parts play a role in those alarming stats. One of them is the lack of money management skills among athletes. Another common problem is that after they finish up their athletic contracts, they have no other sources of money. Professional athletes, no matter the name, will more than likely receive a brand deal of some kind, whether it is to simply wear whatever the brand is paying them to wear to games, practice, and other sports appearances, or create entire shoe lines. The opportunity to receive a brand deal or endorsement is extremely likely; however, many athletes get quick brand endorsement deals that will only give them profit for a certain period, and once that agreement is up, the companies stop supplying the money. This can be seen as unfair, as those same companies can profit from that athlete’s likeness forever due to things like photos and videos that have an everlasting digital footprint. While most athletes end up high and dry after their contracts are over, Shaq defied the odds with his entrepreneurial mindset.

Instead of solely relying on sports and brand deals, O’Neal reached beyond the world of athletics and into the future, or as you know it, Google. Because of a combination of the right time and the right mindset, Shaq’s first steps toward owning things and being a true businessman became possible when he met with the founders of Google in 2004. He decided to consult with his business team and bought part ownership of the company. This was the first major company Shaq ever gave any money to. After buying parts of Google, he hit the ground running. Shaq also started business deals with companies like Krispy Kreme, Papa John’s, Icy Hot, and The General Insurance Company. This big launch into the business world, intertwined with the food business, led to Shaq opening and owning his very own franchise.

Shaq lived across the street from the Ports in New Orleans, which host the cruise ships of the Carnival Cruise Line. Not knowing what the cruise line was about, he went on a Carnival cruise to find out. In doing so, Shaq found his love for the Carnival Cruise Line and started promoting it. He even became the CFO of Carnival Cruise Lines, which in most companies means, “Chief financial officer,” but for Shaq, it meant, “Chief fun officer.” With a series of advertisements across all forms of media, a crucial relationship was the beginning of Shaq expanding his franchise Big Chicken. In 2018, Shaq opened his very own chicken restaurant, Big Chicken, in Las Vegas, Nevada. This restaurant had tons of success but was the only Big Chicken around. In a step towards advancing his Big Chicken franchise, Shaq partnered up with an unlikely force.4 After a year or so of doing business with Carnival Cruise Lines, Shaq lightly mentioned to the staff of the cruise line, “Hey, I’m thinking about opening up some more chicken businesses; let me know if you’re interested.” This conversation between Shaq and Carnival Cruise Line, opened the doors for Big Chicken to make its first-ever appearance on the Carnival cruise ship, Radiance, in 2020. This huge move of not only having Big Chicken expand on land but also taking place in the water allowed Shaq to have the boost needed for his franchise to take off and continue growing.5

Carnival Cruise Line boat | Tomás Fano | February 9, 2004 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Once that deal was made, the Big Chicken franchise expanded across thirteen other states. Now there are Big Chickens in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena, metro-New York’s UBS Arena, and on two other Carnival Cruise ships. Across America and the waters, Big Chicken, a fast-casual restaurant chain, is being served. Big Chicken was founded by Shaquille O’Neal, along with JRS Hospitality and Authentic Brands Group. The chain serves Louisiana-style fried chicken sandwiches, Cheez-It macaroni, and cookies as big as basketballs all for an affordable price.6 Shaq’s very own personal life influenced everything about Big Chicken. For starters, he grew up in the South, specifically in San Antonio, Texas, and in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where soul food, such as fried chicken, is a big part of southern culture. Just like in the South, at Big Chicken, there are a variety of ways to serve these chicken dishes, including sandwiches, tenders, and wings. Another influencing factor was a part of Shaq’s childhood: “Some of his warmest memories involve sitting around the table after church, eating chicken, and spending time with family,” and that is brought to life through the Big Chicken franchise.7  With the help of the Southern and Familial influence and Shaq’s larger-than-life personality, he has made huge contributions towards the success of the Big Chicken brand.

Now, in 2023, there are five more restaurants opened, totaling several Big Chickens today spanning across America in various locations such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Gilbert, Arizona, as well as in the Dayton, Ohio region, inside New York’s UBS Arena, The Moody Center in Austin, ASU’s Mullett Arena, Palm Springs’ Acrisure Arena, St. Louis’s Busch Stadium, Kansas City International Airport, and on three Carnival Cruise ships and more are coming to places far and near, including a possible San Antonio restaurant.8 On top of owning his successful franchise, Shaq owns a piece of Papa John’s, Five Guys, Krispy Kreme, Auntie Anne’s, Ring, and 150 carwashes named “Shaquille’s carwash” and numerous gyms. He’s also all over TV, featuring in funny advertisements with the General Insurance Company and Papa John’s. He even has a fun social media presence where he compares items from companies he supports to his size.  Shaq has dived into all parts of the business world, including entertainment. Shaq has been in a handful of movies and even did a voice-over in The LEGO Movie. He owns his very own franchise, has partnerships with many others, and features himself and other well-known people to create hype and promote his businesses in advertisements.

Shaq proves himself to be a special kind of business owner, not just working behind the scenes with statistics and money-making strategies but also immersing himself in the advertisement process.9 With him branching out into multiple parts of the business world, he was able to create a constant flow of money after he stopped playing in the NBA.

Shaq holding the ball in an NBA Game | Kieth Allison | February 28, 2007 | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons​

By buying partial ownership in companies he promotes and not just cutting a one-and-done advertisement deal, Shaq provided a flow of money after he retired from the NBA in 2011 not only to provide for himself but also his family. Shaq was successful in both the entrepreneurial world and the sports world, ending his NBA career in 2011 with “28,596 points (the seventh highest total in NBA history at the time of his retirement) and 15 All-Star Game selections and being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016”10  while playing for the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Phoneix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers,  Boston Celtics, and owning multiple businesses, and being the main ambassador for the Big Chicken brand. Shaquille O’Neal not only beat the statistics, but he exemplified that athletes could make great entrepreneurs.

  1. Andy Wittry, “Shaquille O’Neal: College Basketball Stats, Best Moments, Quotes,” NCAA.Com, (March 19, 2022).
  2. Jonathan E. Dinneen, “Shaquille O’Neal.,” Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2021, Research Starters, (July 20, 2021).
  4. Will Leitch, “SHAQ: PLAYER, PITCHMAN, BUILDER. How Shaquille O’Neal, Founder and Investor, Made Himself Bigger than Ever,” Inc. Com, (March 7, 2023).
  5. WallStreet Journal,  “Shaquille O’Neal Discusses Investing, Franchising and Donuts,” | WSJ, (October 25, 2019).
  6. 702 Agency, “Big Chicken All About Us,” Big Chicken – Dine-In, Take-out, Local & National Delivery, 2018, ).
  7. Will Leitch, “SHAQ: PLAYER, PITCHMAN, BUILDER. How Shaquille O’Neal, Founder, and Investor, Made Himself Bigger than Ever,” Inc. Com, (March 7, 2023).
  8. 702 Agency, “LOCATIONS,” Big Chicken – Dine-In, Take-out, Local & National Delivery, accessed (November 26, 2023).
  9. Earn Your Leisure, SHAQ ON BUILDING A 400 MILLION DOLLAR BUSINESS EMPIRE, (July 6, 2021 ).
  10. Tracy Grant, “Shaquille O’Neal | Biography & Facts | Britannica,” (November 6, 2023).

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Recent Comments


  • Rhys Williams

    I thoroughly enjoyed learning about Shaquille O’Neal’s rise to prominence in the NBA and his groundbreaking endorsement deal with Reebok. The quote, highlighting O’Neal’s successful college career and his transition to the professional basketball scene, underscores his exceptional talent and marketability as an athlete. His partnership with Reebok not only solidified his status as a brand ambassador but also paved the way for numerous lucrative endorsement opportunities throughout his illustrious career.

  • Stela Naomi Sifuentes

    What a lovely article Taylor! Shaq possesses a strong entrepreneurial spirit and has demonstrated business acumen in identifying lucrative investment opportunities. He has leveraged his brand and celebrity status to launch successful ventures and partnerships.

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