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The Buddy blindside: AFL's biggest signing in detail

Roar Pro
22nd April, 2015
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2133 Reads

How did the Sydney Swans pull off the most controversial and audacious AFL signing in the history of the game? It was a coup of the highest order, a deal as breathtaking as it was blindsiding.

Dramatis personae:

Lance Franklin – 205 AFL games, 662 goals, 104 Brownlow votes, two premierships (and counting) First year with Swans: wins the Coleman Medal for the third time, makes the All-Australian for a third time, finishes equal second in the Brownlow.

Andrew Ireland – Invited Franklin and Pickering for cup of tea and scones at Sydney home. Always prepared to take calculated risks, Ireland is the current CEO of Sydney Swans. Previously CEO of Brisbane Lions, Ireland played an instrumental role in the 10 year deal for the Fitzroy full-forward Alastair Lynch back in 1994.

Richard Colless – Brilliant outgoing CEO of Sydney Swans in 2013. Held the post for many years, and remains one of the most significant appointments in the history of the Sydney Swans Football Club.

John Longmire – Respected Sydney Swans coach (2013 – present) who was part of the initial meeting with Franklin. Ex-North Melbourne player. Also managed by Liam Pickering.

Liam Pickering – Ex-North Melbourne player. Former Player/Manager of Lance Franklin

Andrew McMaster – Board Member of Sydney Swans, Chairman of the Sydney Swans Audit and Risk Committee

Jarryd McVeigh – Co-captain of the Sydney Swans.

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The Buddy factor – 2014
– Sydney Swans membership 40,126 (all-time high)
– Sydney Swans home game average attendance 32,579 (all-time high)
– Sydney Swans win the minor premiership
– Merchandise sales up by an estimated 20% with the Number 23 (Franklin’s number) the most popular jersey

It’s been an impressive first year for Buddy, with many astute PR experts claiming the Swans’ $10 million investment over nine years for Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin has already been worth it.

Before looking at the central characters in what was a nine-month clandestine operation, it’s important to understand the harsh reality of the city within which the Swans operate.

Swans supporters are a notoriously fickle bunch. Forget about loyalty.

When the Swans aren’t regularly winning games of footy, then apart from a few ‘die-hards’, the Swans’ fans will start to disappear at home games, many switching to their fall-back club in another football code which includes teams in the high-profile NRL competition, a burgeoning A-League competition, or the Super Rugby.

Then, if they’re not doing any good either, they’ll simply find something else to do in the city that sparkles and shimmers like no other in Australia.

Consequently, this can have a potentially catastrophic flow-on effect to membership numbers, merchandise sales, TV viewership, and sponsorship deals. Despite the AFL throwing bucket loads of dosh to develop the game in Sydney for decades, the game will never have the fanatical, obsessive tribal culture that exists in Melbourne.

AFL is simply another form of entertainment in Sydney, and winning is very much a crucial part of the mix.

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Malceski-Franklin Buddy Franklin and Nick Malceski. (Photo: Lachlan Cunningham/AFL Media)[/caption]

To be fair, the Swans have kept their end of the bargain and won plenty of games of football in recent years.

Along the way, they’ve even picked up a couple of flags (2005 and 2012.) Remarkably, since 1995, the Swans have made the finals more years than any other club in the same period, only missing the finals in 2000, 2002 and 2009.

Arguably, more than any other club, they’ve also needed to be consistently successful in an unforgiving marketplace that has little tolerance for mediocrity of any sort.

To illustrate the point, in 1995 when the Swans finished 15th; they had 3337 members, and averaged a crowd of 9813 at home games.

In 2014, in the first year with Buddy, they won the minor premiership, they made the Grand Final only to be beaten by Hawthorn, they also achieved their highest membership figure of 40,126, they averaged their highest ever crowds of 32,579 at home games, and merchandise sales were up by around 20%.

While so much has been written about the power-house clubs of Hawthorn and Geelong, particularly by the Melbourne-centric scribes, Sydney is equally impressive over the last decade.

That’s why the Lance Franklin deal is so fascinating. No one saw it coming, and by the time they did, no one could do a damn thing about it.

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Yet when you think about it, and understand the peculiar Sydney market, the Franklin deal makes perfect sense and is in keeping with the Swans’ wonderfully inventive modus operandi.

Franklin is a superstar. At around 102 kilos, Franklin is big, powerful and athletic, he does thing on a football field noone else can do, and he gets people through the gate. What’s more, he’ll help Sydney to win plenty of games of football (maybe even another flag or two) and that last point is why Sydney wanted him so desperately.

For many high-profile commentators in Melbourne like Collingwood’s President Eddie McGuire, and Carlton’s coach Mick Malthouse, it was the last straw in the AFL’s not-so-subtle attempt to give the Sydney Swans every opportunity to promote the game in the biggest marketplace in the country.

While Maguire, Malthouse and co bang on about Sydney’s ‘Cost Of Living Allowance’ (COLA) that’s enabled the club to gain an additional 9.8% in their salary cap compared to other AFL clubs, this ignores so much of the behind-the-scenes brilliance of the Swans over the last 20 years.

Under the impressive stewardship of CEO’s Richard Collis and more recently Andrew Ireland, the Swans have managed to assemble a slew of shrewd administrators and football department personnel, including some outstanding senior coaches who have produced a steady stream of courageous and talented football players.

They play a brand of physical, accountable, and contested footy that stands up week after week. It’s the same high pressure style of footy that wins big games in September.

They also have an Academy that is starting to produce some exceptional footballers including young 18 year old Isaac Heeney who has slotted into the team in 2015 like he’s been there for years.

Somewhere along the way they even found time to build a culture (aka ‘The Bloods’) that legendary teams in other codes like the All Blacks have gone to great lengths to try to understand and duplicate.

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What tends to be forgotten in the Franklin deal that completely blindsided GWS, Hawthorn and the AFL Commission is that the Swans have never been averse to clever calculated risk-taking.

Lance Franklin is seen during the Hawthorn Hawks family day after winning the 2013 Toyota Grand Final, Glenferrie Oval, Melbourne on September 29, 2013. (Photo: Darrian Traynor/AFL Media) Buddy in his Hawks days (Photo: Darrian Traynor/AFL Media)

For instance, they’re experts in recycling players who could barely get a game at other clubs, giving them a specific role within the team, and turning those players into consistent match winners who beat their opponents without paying a fortune for their services.

Think Josh Kennedy, Ben McGlynn, Craig Bolton, Ted Richards, Jarryd McVeigh, Reece Shaw, Shane Mumford.

They’ll take a punt on blokes who’ve never played the code before if they show something (Irishman Tadhg Kennelly/Gaelic football, Canadian Mike Pike/rugby union).

They’re also prepared to dump a contracted cult hero from their list (former co-captain Barry Hall) if he should go off the rails and not adhere to the culture on and off the footy field, which is known colloquially as the ‘no dickheads’ policy.

In piecing together the key events, and the central figures involved, it’s clear that from day one, secrecy was absolutely crucial. Had Hawthorn, GWS or the AFL Commission got any wind of such a deal unfolding, then there’s every chance it would have been scuttled.

With 12 months to go on his contract, Franklin’s Manager at the time, Liam Pickering, was looking at all options to secure the next (and possibly last) long-term massive contract for his then 26-year-old marquee client in the new ‘free agency’ marketplace.

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Pickering has always claimed that after eight magnificent seasons at Hawthorn, Buddy was growing tired of playing his football in the relentless ‘fishbowl’ environment of Melbourne. Consequently, negotiations with Hawthorn were put on-hold during the 2013 season so that Buddy could concentrate on his footy.

Most observers considered this to be code for ‘Buddy’s leaving Hawthorn at the end of the season’. But who could afford him?

Throughout the 2013 season, the fairytale story of Franklin moving up to the harbour city to help the struggling franchise side of GWS gained momentum. It made sense. Gary Ablett Jr did something similar when he was offered a bomb to leave Geelong and head north to the fledgling Gold Coast franchise.

Under the concessional allowances for new clubs, GWS simply had more money to throw at Franklin than Hawthorn, a club that was already stretched to keep their existing key players under contract. Frankland’s girlfriend, model Jessica Campbell, lived in Sydney.

Also, if you believed Pickering’s version behind the impetus for an impending move, Franklin wouldn’t be constantly hassled and hero-worshipped by every man and his dog in Sydney.

Then there’s the cynics angle which went along the lines of Buddy looking to sure up his celebrity brand status in Sydney, including his massive appeal to Gen ‘Y’ with his 280,000 Twitter followers, his 270,000 Instagram followers, as well as marketing his own clothing brand Nena and Pasadena.

It’s much easier to enhance his brand by playing well in a team like the Swans and compete for a premiership over the next few years than to go to a fledgling club like GWS, who, for all their improvement, is still years off winning a premiership…

$10 million over nine years is also nothing to sneeze at either.

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Of course, the GWS scenario would have sat well with everyone involved; the AFL Commission, (he’ll attract crowds and sponsors to the battling GWS franchise in what was a key market in western Sydney), and the Hawthorn Football Club (GWS were not threatening for a premiership).

It also suited Sydney right down to the ground (a perfect distraction to land one of the greatest AFL players of his generation provided no one spills the beans and they can crunch the numbers.)

Sydney claim that they did not make the initial approach.

This was done by Pickering in the off-season of 2012/13. Interestingly, Pickering is also the manager of Sydney coach John Longmire, old playing buddies at North Melbourne.

Longmire would have been the perfect sounding board and confidante for any initial discussion, although of course we can only speculate. What we do know is that Franklin and Pickering met with Ireland and Longmire in late January 2013 at the home of Ireland (four months after Sydney won the flag in 2012 by the way).

According to Ireland, at that stage they weren’t even sure what the meeting was about. That’s how close Pickering had his cards to his chest.

But they could hazard a guess.

Ireland and Longmire claim they approached the meeting with a high degree of circumspection. They were not about to try to convince Franklin, who they’d never even met before, to move to the Sydney Swans.

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Instead, they wanted to hear what Franklin had to say to determine if he was genuine, and whether they thought he’d be a good fit for the Club. Over the course of their meeting, which involved several cups of tea and some fresh scones that Ireland’s wife Kelly had made, Franklin made it very clear he wanted to move to Sydney, and to join the Swans specifically.

Lance Franklin and Adam Goods celebrate for Sydney Swans Franklin has become the most important player on the Swans’ list (Photo: Craig Golding/AFL Media)

Franklin spoke about wanting to make a positive contribution to the team, a team he thought had a great opportunity to land another premiership. He must have been convincing to both Longmire and Ireland because from that moment it would seem the wheels we were very much in motion to grab Franklin from under the noses of their rivals west of town.

Sydney now had nine months to make it happen, and while they weren’t sure initially if they could come up with a deal attractive enough to secure Franklin, they wanted to give it their best shot. Ireland is quoted as saying “that if Lance Franklin came to you and said he wanted to play at your club, what would you do?”

Slowly, and on a strictly ‘needs to know’ basis, Sydney brought other key Swans into the loop.

This included outgoing chairperson Richard Colless, Chairman of the Swans Audit and Risk Committee, Andrew McMaster, ex-player and Sydney Swans Board Member Jason Ball, who would act as a conduit between the Board and the football department, and co-captain Jarrad McVeigh, who after some consideration, gave the secret Buddy deal his blessing.

The only other people who might have known what was potentially unfolding is Andrew Ireland’s wife Kelly, and Lance Franklin snr, Franklin’s dad (one slip up from anyone of these individuals and the Melbourne media would have had a field day!).

Behind the scenes, the numbers were being seriously crunched. It didn’t take Sydney long to work out that they would need to look at a different type of contract to get the Buddy deal over the line, which including offloading some very good players at the end of the season to squeeze him in.

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“I devised the contract and the reality is, we couldn’t pay him in his first year even what he was getting at Hawthorn in his last year”, said Ireland.

“We thought, if that’s the starting position, if you only do a six-year contract, to catch up what he’s given up in the early years, you might have a year where it’s $2 million. When we analysed it, the risk was better to go a bit longer and spread it out, which he was happy to do. I have no regrets at all about the Franklin deal” he said.

“The reality is that it will be tested over the journey, in its totality. People will speculate along the way. But it should be judged at the end. I think by any measure, as a player who’s kicked 60 goals six or seven years in a row, he’s pretty unique. I think he will be a very good player for us.”

On the 8th October, nine days after Hawthorn won the 2013 Grand Final, Sydney’s brazen clandestine operation is revealed. With camera and microphones thrust in his face, Buddy stuns the AFL community by announcing that he’s accepted a deal to join the Sydney Swans,

As expected, the Melbourne media went ballistic, and accused Sydney of rorting the salary cap.

So before approving the deal, the AFL stepped in and sought written guarantees from Sydney directors that the entire contract payment would be paid in full, regardless of how long Franklin played for, and would all count against Sydney’s salary cap.

Sydney were able to demonstrate they had done nothing wrong, they were working within the parameters of their salary cap, and they were simply taking a calculated risk. Interestingly, since the decision, the AFL has taken the decision to phase out the COLA, which for the moment has appeased the likes of Maguire and Malthouse,

According to celebrity manager Max Markson, Buddy Franklin is an absolute bargain for an athlete who could soon become Australia’s answer to Michael Jordan or David Beckham.

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“I would’ve thought he’s cheap at twice that price,” Markson said.

“They’re not just getting a player. They’re getting so much more.”

In 2013, the IMG Sports Technology Group produced a report on which AFL players generate the most amount of revenue for items such as guernseys, caps and badges.

Franklin was No.1, more than doubling the next best on the list.

“Initially the Swans will use him in marketing for their membership drive and ticket sales,” Markson said.

“They’ll get more money out of their sponsors, more sponsors will be attracted and they’ll do some licensing on a bigger scale – locally and nationally.”

While the jury may still be out on the success of the Franklin deal in the eyes of the football scribes, the Swans Board Members must all be smiling behind the scenes at the extraordinary start on and off the field to the biggest most audacious AFL signing in the history of the game.