Updated to include comments from McDonald's.
NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- NBA superstar LeBron James is saying goodbye to Big Macs, and hello to better-for-you pizza.
James announced on Thursday that he will not be renewing his endorsement deal with the Golden Arches. Instead, James will be taking his star power to help promote a company that he reportedly owns 10% of -- upstart pizza chain Blaze Pizza.
"Blaze Pizza isn't your typical pizza chain, their model is literally changing the future of the fast casual industry altogether," said James, who first invested in Blaze back in 2012, in a statement. James added, "I initially invested in this company because I knew it was a special idea that offered something people would want."
It's a major blow to McDonald's (MCD) , which for years has tapped NBA stars such as Michael Jordan and Larry Bird to promote its fast food around the globe. McDonald's is the sponsor of the "McDonald's All-American Games", which showcases the best high-school talent in the country. Mickey D's will also now lose a global ambassador ahead of the 2016 Olympics, where LeBron will lead the U.S. men's basketball team into battle.
A McDonald's spokesperson said that the fast food chain and James "mutually decided to end the relationship" and that McDonald's "wishes him the best in his future endeavors."
As for Blaze Pizza, the LeBron deal is all upside. "Lebron has a huge social media following, he is a global icon, and he could help bring awareness that Blaze Pizza didn't have before," said Blaze Pizza COO Jim Mizes in a phone interview with TheStreet. Mizes said it's "still to be determined" how LeBron will be used to promote Blaze Pizza in terms of media appearances.
McDonald's is battling years of declining sales in the U.S. amid poor perceptions of its food. But what people are showing they want is the type of better-for-you food, served quickly, that is on offer by companies such as the surging Blaze Pizza.
Headquartered in Pasadena, Calif., Blaze Pizza has grown from two U.S. locations in 2012 to 89 today. By the end of the year, Blaze Pizza will be near 100 restaurants in some 28 states.
Overall system-wide sales are projected to reach just over $100 million in 2015, up from $33 million in 2014. According to the company, same-restaurant sales have risen by double-digit percentages in both the first and second quarters.
By comparison, Yum! Brand's (YUM) Pizza Hut division has seen its U.S. same-restaurant sales largely remain unchanged this year. Importantly, Blaze Pizza is profitable, says the company, pointing to earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) margins in the range of 15% to 20%.
"What Blaze Pizza is exploiting is pizza for lunch, higher quality artisanal pizzas that you could make down the line in three minutes, then into the oven, and before you know it you have your drink and pizza," said Mizes, explaining how the company is wresting share from its larger fast food pizza rivals.
The company plans to open 90 to 100 new sites in 2016, some of which will be abroad. "We are going to focus slowly on international, focusing on a few key countries and with experienced franchisees," says Mizes, adding that James' global fame should be helpful to drive awareness as it expands overseas.
The company's international roll-out comes on the heels of Pizza Hut's disappointing second quarter in China, fueled by the devaluation of China's currency and a slowing economy there.
Blaze Pizza may also be setting the stage to take aim at another area of McDonald's business -- breakfast. "Breakfast pizza is something we will be debuting when we open up at the Houston airport later this year," confirmed Mizes, days after McDonald's launched its all-day breakfast availability nationwide.