Unpacking the Buddy Franklin Phenomenon

A rare interview with AFL star and Zenith collaborator Lance “Buddy” Franklin.

Article by Luke Benedictus

221021_Zenith_Buddy_SHOT_06_1396 (1)Lance "Buddy" Franklin collaborated with his sponsor Zenith to customise a Defy Extreme timepiece, taking his design cues from the Australian outback; proceeds will be used to purchase reading materials for children in Alice Springs. Photography by Will Braden.

The game is already won but the SCG still throbs with expectation. The Sydney Swans lead Geelong 101–69 in the Friday-night clash with under seven minutes to play. Yet when Lance “Buddy” Franklin collects an easy mark 30 metres from goal, the noise from the crowd is immense. People surge towards the Paddington end of the ground, clambering on top of advertising hoardings and scrambling onto the fringes of the oval, camera phones cocked at the ready. They’re primed to capture a moment of history. Franklin stands on 999 career goals and now has the chance to become only the sixth VFL/AFL player to reach the magic number of 1,000.

Ignoring the hubbub, Franklin steadies himself and takes stock. He eyes the  goal with wary respect, as if it’s a mountain he is yet to summit. He takes a deep breath, then lopes forward on those long limbs, breaking into a trot, before his left boot connects to send the ball arrowing straight between the posts. What follows is that special form of deranged euphoria that sport can occasionally unleash. Franklin is engulfed by hundreds of Swans fans, the grass of the oval turning red and white from the ocean of supporters who swarm the field to celebrate with their conquering hero.

Coming on March 25, 2022, after months and months of pandemic gloom, the response to Franklin’s 1,000th goal — that riot of untrammelled joy — felt necessary. “I loved it, I loved  it,” says Franklin when we speak on the phone. “It was such an amazing moment — to kick a thousand goals and have my closest family and friends there to witness it. That was something that I’ll cherish forever.”

Seen from another perspective, those scenes at the SCG were remarkable for being the first mass pitch invasion at an AFL ground since 2008. The man responsible for triggering the last one? A certain Lance Franklin, who provoked the delight of Hawthorn fans when he joined the exclusive ranks of the “Centurions” by kicking 100 goals in a single season. That Franklin is the common factor in both of these frenzies is no coincidence; it’s proof of the Buddy effect.

He may be a reluctant subject but he is, as the writer claims, "absurdly photogenic". Photography by Will Braden.

In 2013, the Swans prised Franklin from Hawthorn with a monster nine-year $10 million deal. It’s easy to forget how contentious the move was at the time. The Sydney Morning Herald columnist Peter FitzSimons summed up the view of the naysayers, bellowing in block capitals “HAVE THE SWANS GOT FREAKING ROCKS IN THEIR HEADS?” Critics viewed Franklin as potentially disruptive to the Swans’ famously harmonious team culture. How would the player with a party boy reputation fare amid the bright lights of Sin City? What if injury sabotaged the lengthy deal? “I predict tears,” FitzSimons wrote.

But hindsight is not always cruel. One man who spoke out at the time, hailing the genius of the Swans’ move, was the celebrity agent Max Markson. Franklin, he suggested, had the potential to become Australia’s answer to Michael Jordan or David Beckham. “That $10 million deal — I’d probably double that now,” Markson tells me. “The Swans should’ve paid him more.”

In this sports-mad country, he explains, few sportspeople truly resonate on a national scale. The football codes, after all, are largely divided over regional lines. Tennis players and cricketers are big drawcards, sure, but they travel the world for much of the year, while swimmers, Markson points out, “are only seen once every two years at the Olympics or Commonwealth Games”. Fuelling the agent’s conviction that Franklin would be a hit was his recollection of Warwick Capper, who, allying his aerial majesty with his skin-tight shorts and blond mullet, had gone to the Swans in the mid-’80s and supercharged the AFL’s profile nationwide. Markson believed that Franklin could repeat the trick and live with far less pressure than he could in the AFL-obsessed fishbowl of Melbourne. “And Buddy has just been a superstar for the Swans,” says Markson. “He’s consistently performed and is just really, really talented.” 

Markson, of course, is right. You can’t unpack the Buddy Franklin phenomenon without marvelling at his dead-eyed brilliance on the oval. The 35-year-old is the fifth-greatest goal kicker in VFL/AFL history. Yet it’s not just the weight of numbers that makes him special, but also the quality of his strikes, his ability from distance and his unerring capacity to conjure something from nothing. His most famous goal from a lengthy highlights reel is still the 2010 masterpiece against Essendon, when he plucked a loose ball from the air and, with three bounces, escaped the clutches of Cale Hooker to accelerate down the left flank. The acuteness of the angle looked impossible, but Franklin somehow contrived to slot the ball home while running at full pace. It was a goal that showcased not only the player’s freakish athleticism, but also his audacity and ice-cold poise.

Such brilliance may seem instinctive but it’s the result of a lifetime of graft. Franklin has worked tirelessly to build himself into the footballer he has become. When he arrived at Hawthorn in 2004, he was a gangly beanpole: 199 centimetres tall, he weighed 87 kilograms and shocked the team’s fitness coach as he struggled to knock out a set of pull-ups. Determined to become more powerful, Franklin knuckled down in the gym. Today, he weighs 106 kilograms. His physique is relevant to his fame, too, because it makes him a conspicuous presence. You don’t have to be an AFL fan to recognise Franklin at a glance. 

Part of the reason his profile now transcends sport is his marriage to Jesinta Franklin (nee Campbell), a former Miss Universe Australia and one of the country’s most well-known models. “I remember when I was on Who magazine, we used to call them the Posh and Becks of Australia,” says Nicky Briger, now the editor of Marie Claire Australia. “I can’t think of a bigger power couple in Australia from that perspective of pop culture meets sport meets fashion. Buddy and Jesinta both amplify each other.” 

Illuminated by the paparazzi’s flashbulbs, the appeal of supercoupledom is nothing new. The world has been mesmerised by sparkly double acts since the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. But the currency of a power couple has never been as valuable as it is in the social media age. Brand sponsors now win extra visibility when the significant other supports their partner by promoting their content through likes or reposts. Such marketing clout is deepened by an emotional connection that is kindled by our soppiness for romance. 

When Franklin married Jesinta in 2016, he was catapulted into the hearts, minds and Insta feeds of a whole new audience. Take Marie Claire. As a women’s magazine, it’s not in the habit of anointing male cover stars. But, in 2018, Briger didn’t hesitate to put the Franklins on the cover, shooting the pair on Sydney’s Maroubra Beach at dawn to avoid the paparazzi. “The only other man we’ve had on the cover was George Clooney in his heyday,” she says. 

The upshot of all this is that sponsors fall over themselves to be associated with Franklin. His current partners include Zenith, Crown Hotels, Swisse, Telstra and the AFL, while he’s previously worked with Dior, Nike, Coach, Beats by Dre, Politix, Driza-Bone and Gatorade. The mix of brands reflects his breadth of appeal. All this makes sense from a marketing perspective, but there was a time when Franklin was a somewhat unlikely candidate for Australia’s most bankable athlete.

The last time I met Franklin was in Sydney on a Men’s Health cover shoot in 2017. Three things stood out. The first was that I’d never witnessed such protective management of a subject, with all questions highly vetted. It far exceeded anything you’d get with a Hollywood actor. The reason for this paranoid vigilance soon became apparent. Franklin is unusually shy. His wife attended the shoot purely for moral support. “He’s really nervous,” Jesinta told me. There was clearly a huge disparity between “Lance” as he introduced himself (the former country boy from Western Australia) and “Buddy” (the one-man superbrand). 

Buddy Franklin_1
Buddy Franklin’s Whadjuk-Noongar heritage informs the hunting story that is depicted in his tattoos. Photography by Will Braden.

The final notable aspect was that Franklin is absurdly photogenic, with his rugged physicality, blue eyes and easy smile. The photographer couldn’t get a bad shot.

His bashful nature may stem from his humble beginnings. Franklin grew up in the outback, about 170 kilometres northeast of Perth, with four older sisters on a small hobby farm that had sheep, goats, horses and a pet donkey. “You know the movie ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’?” he says. “We actually lived on that road. We were literally out in the dirt, in the middle of nowhere.” Franklin’s father, Lance Snr, worked as bricklayer (the nickname “Buddy” emerged as a way to differentiate the pair) while his mother, Ursula, was a full-time mum. The nearest community was to be found in Dowerin, a sleepy wheatbelt town with a population of fewer than 500. “The local school was called Ejanding and it only had 12 or 13 kids in it,” he recalls. 

The soundtrack of Franklin’s childhood was the self-generated thump of leather against corrugated tin. “We had shearing sheds and painted these blue goalposts on them,” says Franklin. “I would spend hours and hours by myself, kicking the ball up against them.” This image of a young Franklin honing his craft alone in the dusty heat of a remote farm evokes inevitable parallels with another legend from Australia’s sporting mythology. Don Bradman famously practised by hitting a golf ball with a cricket stump against a water tank in his backyard in Bowral, New South Wales.

Along with dedication, Franklin had solid genetics to work with. Lance Snr not only gave his name to his son, but also his giant frame and, having played state hockey for Victoria, no shortage of hand-eye coordination. Ursula, meanwhile, was a handy netball player, while her brother Larry Kickett played football for East Perth and Claremont in the WAFL. “Sport was a huge, huge factor in our lives from a young age that would bring the family together,” says Franklin. “We’d all jump in the car on Saturday mornings, the girls would do netball and athletics, and I’d do football. My parents were huge on making sure that we got an education and sport was second for them. But if you were to ask me, I’d probably say it was the other way around.”

As a teenager, Franklin was awarded a sports scholarship to attend Wesley College in Perth, a school that has developed many a future AFL star, including Ben Cousins and Jarrad Schofield. “I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to go to such a prestigious school,” he says. “Without that chance, who knows? Maybe I wouldn’t be playing AFL — you never know. That school gave me an opportunity to get an education, but also to try my shot at football, too.” Franklin capitalised on it and, in 2004, he became the No. 5 draft pick by Hawthorn to launch his professional career. 

His belief in the life-changing value of education is, in fact, the reason for this interview. One of Franklin’s sponsors is the Swiss watch brand Zenith and, as part of the partnership, he collaborated on a timepiece inspired by the Australian outback. The result is a customised version of the Zenith Defy Extreme in which the dial is rendered in an orangey red with a texture inspired by the sacred site of Uluru. Only two watches were made: the first for Franklin himself; and the second was auctioned off for the Australian Literacy & Numeracy Foundation (ALNF), with all proceeds put towards books and learning supplies for children in Alice Springs. Support
for kids in marginalised communities is urgently needed, with the foundation reporting that 46 per cent of Aboriginal adults in Australia are “functionally illiterate”. “Obviously, myself being Indigenous, my kids being Indigenous, just to see what the charity do to raise awareness is unbelievable,” says Franklin, who has been a foundation ambassador since 2017. “I think sometimes we take education for granted — we think of it as a given. To see what the foundation is doing for Indigenous kids is fantastic.”

Franklin’s passion for this issue stems from his mother, a Whadjuk-Noongar woman. “I’m super-
proud of my heritage, where I come from and of my people,” he says. This sentiment is illustrated by the tattoos on his left arm. Just below his shoulder is a portrait of an Aboriginal Elder playing the didgeridoo that melds into a series of Indigenous-inspired motifs. “Next to the picture of the old fella, it’s all about land, kangaroos, the bush,” he says. “It’s just telling a story about hunting and where we come from, really. But it’s a pretty special piece of artwork that really means a lot to me.”

That Franklin cares deeply about Indigenous matters is indisputable. Yet what’s also notable is how cagey he is when discussing them. At one point, leading on from a remark he made about his mum, I ask Franklin whether she ever talked about her experience growing up as an Aboriginal woman. The reply comes back polite but firm: “That’s a touchy subject; if we could just leave that question out.” Trying to contextualise the ALNF’s work, I ask about a trip he made with Hawthorn’s Indigenous players to Alice Springs and the Top End in 2009. Did he see anything confronting that broadened his awareness of Aboriginal life? Once again, Franklin deflects. “Definitely, it was eye-opening,” he eventually concedes. “But it just made me so proud of my people and my heritage.”

This guarded approach is Franklin’s stock tactic for broaching a subject that is, of course, incredibly complex, emotive and fraught. Any divergence from it is rare. But in 2020, following the death of George Floyd in the United States, Franklin entered the discussion with a six-part Instagram post highlighting racial injustice and the fact that “Indigenous Australians make up three per cent of the population and about 30 per cent of the prison population”. Since then, that impassioned blast has been removed from Franklin’s feed, which is now dominated by sponsored posts. 

Watching the footballer’s careful dance around the subject brings to mind Barack Obama’s words on the dilemma facing any high-profile personality of colour. “Many times, America is quick to embrace a Michael Jordan or an Oprah Winfrey, or a Barack Obama,” the former president said in the Netflix documentary series “The Last Dance”. “So long as it’s understood that you don’t get too controversial around broader issues of social justice.”

Dr Tom Heenan, who lectures on sport and Australian culture at Monash University, suggests Franklin’s ambivalence about openly discussing such matters is unsurprising. “Buddy’s family have memories of the Stolen Generations,” he says. “These people didn’t talk about who they were, because to talk about that would mean you could be removed. So it is understandable that Buddy wouldn’t talk about family background. He’s also seen what happens to other people who have spoken out. He’s seen the racist taunting of Adam Goodes and how that affected him.”

Goodes, who won two Brownlow Medals and two premierships, was subjected to terrible abuse after he was named Australian of the Year and subsequently made comments about his Aboriginality and race relations. Franklin played alongside Goodes at the Swans and, in a 2014 match against the Western Bulldogs, the pair were racially vilified from the stands. Such incidents are still depressingly common in football. When the AFL Players’ Association released its Insights & Impact Report in September, it found that almost a third of Indigenous AFL athletes and players of colour had experienced racism. 

The fact this is still such a live issue may explain Franklin’s reticence. However,  Dr Heenan believes the Franklins have found another way to articulate their position, with Jesinta increasingly becoming the couple’s public voice on social matters. In 2019, during a radio interview with Sydney’s KIISS FM, she upbraided the host Kyle Sandilands for the ignorant way he referred to her husband’s heritage. The following year, Jesinta penned a column for Stellar magazine that explained why she wouldn’t celebrate Australia Day on January 26. “I have seen my husband well up when talking about his mum and how she used to have to run away with her siblings when they knew the government trucks were coming to take them away from their parents,” she wrote.

“Jesinta is far more ‘out there’ when it comes to Indigenous issues,” Dr Heenan says. “She seems to be the mouthpiece for him, because it’s just easier for her to speak about these things as she’s not a Black person in a football code that really does still have problems with its treatment of First Nations’ players.”

Franklin may not be a vocal advocate on such matters, but Dr Heenan says he expresses himself in a different mode. It was Goodes who highlighted how football was originally an Indigenous game, citing an 1881 book called “Australian Aborigines” that describes how for tribes in western Victoria, “one of the favourite games is football”, a sport played with a possum-skin ball filled with pounded charcoal bound together with kangaroo sinew. “Buddy would’ve been aware of football as an expression of Indigeneity,” says Dr Heenan. “It seems to me, at times, he plays
with that expression: ‘This is my game. This is my domain.’ His assertion of power on the football field is a comment in itself.”

Franklin, of course, is a footballer, not a politician, and is self-aware enough to know that silver-tongued oratory isn’t his primary skill. “I hope that that’s OK, mate,” he says at the end of our interview. “I’m not the best at talking about myself.” Fortunately, in his line of work greatness is measured in deeds, not words, and Franklin is aware of that power, too.

That’s why, after scoring his 1,000th goal, Franklin posted a picture of himself on Instagram from the Swans’ locker room. Despite it being his long-awaited moment of personal glory, Franklin’s head is turned from the camera, allowing the focus to centre on the Aboriginal flag draped over his back. “It’s about breaking down those barriers,” he says of the post. “It’s about giving our Indigenous people that platform to go, ‘You know what? If Lance Franklin can make it — or if any successful person that’s Indigenous can make it — I can be successful in this world, too.’ If a young kid looks at that picture and thinks, ‘You know what? I can succeed at something if I put my mind to it’; if that happens, then I’ve done my job.” The picture has no verbal caption, just three heart emojis in red, yellow and black.

This is an extract from our newest issue.

To read the full story, pick up a copy of our new issue in newsagents nationally or subscribe to receive T Australia straight to your letterbox. You will find it on Page 66 of Issue #10, titled “Buddy Franklin”.