Football’s surprising king of Instagram

Mystery surrounds the reason an unlikely AFL rising star has exploded on social media to become the most intriguing Grand Final story.

Bailey Smith chose football. The Instagram influencer life chose him.

The Western Bulldogs star has exploded on the football field to become one of the best midfielders in the game this year, but it is in cyberspace where the 20-year-old has really taken off.

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He will step onto the Optus Stadium turf on Saturday night in Perth as the third-most followed AFL player on Instagram.

With 272,000 followers, only Dustin Martin (338,000) and Lance Franklin (334,000) have more reach in the social sphere. Smith boasts more Instagram followers than 17 of the 18 AFL clubs — behind only Richmond.

Smith started the year with 130,000 followers but a series of high-profile headline moments during this season have turned him into one of the biggest stars in the game despite less than three seasons in the league.

Smith himself doesn’t get why he has such a strong pull on social media. There is nothing dramatic, sensational or scandalous about the images and content he posts online.

Just an unassuming, hard-working talent that has arrived in the AFL through the very common pathway of a Melbourne private school development system.

The mystery may have something to do with the odd shirtless photo he posts showing his well-publicised chiselled frame. It could also have something to do with the ridiculous Billy Ray Cyrus mop on top that makes him one of the most noticeable players every time he steps onto a football field.

Smith said at the start of the year he was beginning to receive interest from potential sponsors about partnering with his social media presence.

Nine months later, he has ambassadorial arrangements with Cotton On, Monster Energy and Telstra.

“It’s certainly humbling but at the end of the day it doesn’t mean too much,” he said of his Instagram allure.

“It’s just one of those things that comes with football and some other stuff, so I don’t know.”

Recently Smith’s following received a boost of another 20,000 followers after his game-winning major in the semi-final against the Brisbane Lions where he kicked a tough running goal from near the sideline to put his team in front with two minutes to play.

The young gun celebrated by roaring at the crowd and proceeding to mimic putting a needle into his wrist, copying NBA All-Star D’Angelo Russell’s signature “ice in my veins” celebration.

The Minnesota Timberwolves star liked what he saw and gave Smith a shout out to his 3.5 million Instagram followers when he came across a video of Smith’s celebration.

Smith had also previously celebrated a goal by using former New York Nicks star Carmelo Anthony’s signature celebration.

It is all part of the tapestry that makes Smith’s “Bazlenka” Instagram identity so engaging for fans.

Part of the appeal may also be his thrift-shop hand-me-down fashion sense. Or even the inner-peace he reportedly feels through his Christianity — which includes regular appearances at a church in Malvern.

Whatever it is, his teammates never let him forget his quirky place in the football landscape.

“They call me either Joe Exotic (from Netflix series Tiger King) and Jackson Trengove calls me ‘Mr Instagram’ half the time in the warm-up at training,” Smith said in an interview with the AFL’s official website last year.

“Barry is a new one. I get Barry a lot. That started earlier in the year and that’s probably the most frequent one as a version of ‘Barry Lenka’. I think Billy Gowers and ‘Libba’ called me that.”

Smith is reported to be much more than the ragamuffin style footy player most would be quick to judge based on his appearance. Lost in his emotional appearance on the field, Smith is widely referred to as one of the hardest workers in his football club.

Following the likes of Marcus Bontempelli ultimately helped catapult Smith into the conversation for All-Australian squad selection.

It’s in the finals series where he’s found another gear. He picked up possessions at will against Essendon in the elimination final and his classy touches in the nailbiter against Brisbane are the reason the team progressed to a preliminary final against Port Adelaide.

He may well be the reason the Bulldogs are crowned premiers by the time he walks off the Optus stadium field on Saturday night.

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