Sport AFL Buddy: the most famous AFL player ever?
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Buddy: the most famous AFL player ever?

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Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin is redefining what it means to be an AFL star, say the experts – a potent mix of talent and celebrity who is transcending the sport.

Franklin could well be the most recognisable man ever to pull on an AFL jumper, given that he has gone north of the so-called ‘Barassi Line’ and conquered the Sydney market in both a sporting and social sense.

With his model girlfriend Jesinta Campbell, fashion empire and multi-million dollar playing contract, Franklin is the Usain Bolt of footy, said Jump Media sports marketer and former Olympian David Culbert.

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“He’s an attraction in himself, and there’s not that many of them,” Culbert said.

“He’s redefining what it means to be a modern day footballer, that’s for sure, if not only because he’s being paid an absolute fortune.”

Others have thrived in the Sydney market, such as Warwick Capper, Tony Lockett and Barry Hall, but that was in the days before social media and 24 hour television coverage. None, for example, could boast Franklin’s 280,000 followers on Twitter or 270,000 on Instagram. (Another challenger would be Adam Goodes, who has also transcended the game, albeit in a vastly different way.)

Only Capper comes close to Franklin’s “X-factor” and comfort in the glare of the limelight, said Deakin University sports management programs director Professor David Shilbury, who pointed out that Lockett was a shy personality who let his football do the talking.

“Franklin is obviously a superstar as a footballer, and Capper was clearly a celebrity, and a good footballer, but perhaps not in Franklin’s class,” he said. “Franklin has that X-factor in talent and also celebrity that a lot of other players don’t have.”

Despite the fact four Sydney sides remain in the NRL finals, it was Franklin in full flight who was plastered across the front page of Sydney’s top selling The Daily Telegraph on Monday.

Celebrity agent Max Markson said Franklin was “very much” on the brink of megastardom within the next year or so, regardless of this weekend’s grand final result.

“He’s definitely the biggest name in AFL, alongside Gary Ablett junior I guess,” Markson said of the Coleman medalist, four-time All Australlian and two-time premiership player.

“The transition to be an American-style sports star like a Kobe Bryant or a Michael Jordan, it’s not happened yet for him. It can.

“When that happens, that‘s when we’ll say he’s moved to another level.”

The Sydney Swans headhunted the star from Hawthorn after the 2013 Grand Final with a $10 million nine-year contract. The club’s big-money bet on the ‘twin towers’ of Franklin and Kurt Tippett has already paid dividends, with the Swans the firm favourites to win against the Hawks on Saturday.

Glamour couple: Jesinta Campbell and Lance Franklin. Photo: Getty
Glamour couple: Jesinta Campbell and Lance Franklin. Photo: Getty

The clash between Buddy’s old and new mates is a double-windfall for the league, as TV ratings soar whenever Sydney has a chance at the flag.

The three recent grand finals featuring Sydney in 2005, 2006 and 2012 are the highest rating since OzTam began collecting this data in 2001.

Sydney’s 2005 win over West Coast drew an average of 3.39 million viewers in the major cities, just ahead of the 3.15 million garnered by the West Coast vs Sydney match in 2006. Sydney vs Hawthorn in 2012 ranked third on 3.196 million.

Monash University business school’s Professor Robert Brooks, who has researched TV sport ratings, said stars like Franklin have a “clear, strong, positive effect” on the number of viewers.

Leigh Matthews, considered by many the greatest player in the history of the AFL, but who would be unrecognisable to many Sydney-siders, marvelled at the interest Franklin had generated.

“I can never remember the time when the interest in one individual … has ever been more than the spotlight which has been on Franklin,” Matthews said.

Playbill merchandise manager Jason Pretorius, the company that runs the official ‘Swanshop’, said Buddy has “boosted everything”.

He estimated game attendances and product sales have increased by approximately 20 per cent.

“It’s galvanised the Sydney supporter base. It’s created a bit of excitement like what Adam Goodes was doing in 2012, and he’s kind of stepped up to the mark,” Pretorius said.

Unlike other high-profile club switchers like Daisy Thomas, who jumped from Collingwood to Carlton, Buddy seems to have largely escaped being called a turncoat or traitor.

Queensland University of Technology Associate Professor in marketing Larry Neale said the move felt less like betrayal because Buddy left when the Hawks were on top. His ability to transcend the club he plays for also eased the transition, Neale said – something Barry Hall never had.

This high profile has helped Buddy bridge the gap between two clubs and two kinds of AFL supporters – the diehard devotees and lukewarm on-lookers, Neale said.

The star also needed room to shine. His choice of recent premiers the Swans over struggling new-comers the Giants was a no-brainer, Neale said.

“His brand wouldn’t match if he was on a team that was at the bottom of the AFL ladder and getting beaten up every week,” Neale said.

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