SAN FRANCISCO - Talking smack in sports isn't just for loudmouth fans or athletes anymore.
The newest character mixing it up may just be their big-league team itself, thanks to the way sports marketers have embraced the power and immediacy of social media.
As the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Rays prep for their head-to-head battle next week for a trip to baseball's playoffs, don't be surprised to see the two teams hurl some jabs at each other - remotely - via their official Twitter feeds.
Baseball urgently needs to reach younger fans, so it wants to join the conversations happening in social media, even the rough-and-tumble kinds.
"That's where the fans, certainly a lot of young fans, hang out," says Bob Bowman, CEO of Major League Baseball's Advanced Media L.P. unit. "And while they might not be fans who are spending a lot of money right now, we think down the road they will be."
Behind the trend, companies of all sizes and industries are spending millions in a rush to build real-time, hyper-connected social media operation centers. Baseball is one of the leading lights when it comes to the sports business.
The game plan? Plug in with the right audience. Be fast. Mix in some witty lines about topics that are "trending" across media. Boost the visibility of the precious brand. Expand the fan base.
And while jumping into improvisational, sometimes raw banter may thrill fans and give teams attention, the experiment may cause some fits as executives strive to be edgy and authentic without going "off brand" or undermining other goals, says Brian Gainor, director of strategy and analytics for Freshwire, an online content-creation company.
As in real baseball, nobody bats a thousand in social marketing. Each team crafts its own voice, but they all compare notes.
"I think for one thing, it shows you have a little personality," says Bryan Srabian, director of social media for the San Francisco Giants. "It's the age-old thing of fans talking trash and having fun in a good-natured way, and I think it's OK as long as it's in good taste."
Like many teams, the Giants usually have three staff members running its Twitter account (488,000 followers) during games. The followers of the New York Yankees (980,000) and the Philadelphia Phillies (780,000) are the largest team flocks. MLB's feed sports 3.1 million followers.
A couple of years ago, baseball hired more than a dozen people in their 20s to run what now is a sophisticated social media command center in Manhattan in hopes of adding to the brand's cool factor.
Being "in the moment" and humorous is the task at hand, Bowman says, with the goal of mastering conversational posts that mirror what a couple of salty friends might say to each other, only in a "cleaned up" form. About 1,000 pieces of social content are managed daily on the team, according to MLB.
"The most effective Twitter stuff is spontaneous, and that's why we respect Twitter so much, because it's real people saying real things,'' Bowman says.
More than once this season, the Red Sox and the Rays, who are locked in a seesaw battle for first in the AL East, have done the dance, batting around a series of juicy, mostly good-natured tweets that would be heard in a trash-talking sports bar.
When the Rays captured first place for a time in July after an especially tense game with controversial umpire calls, the team gleefully tweeted, "Dear @RedSox scoreboard operator, your standings are wrong. Yours truly, @RaysBaseball."
The Red Sox fired back, "Don't worry, @RaysBasball, we look forward to seeing you in Tampa in September for our home game at the Trop." The Trop is the Rays' ballpark, Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Watched by legions of baseball fans, the conversation helped earn baseball praise for engaging the Twitter generation by joining them.
"It's about building momentum and getting the fan base amped up," says Eric Berto, a Seattle-based public-relations professional and creator of the GeekGiant blog.
"Being able to capitalize on current events or in-game moments to create content is vital. But sometimes it backfires."
Sports-marketing consultant Amy Jo Martin, CEO of Digital Royalty, says the issue of finding the right voice to use with real-time social media is a hot topic as teams ramp up training to keep staff tweeters in line with top-level strategy. "Now more than ever," adds Martin, "one low-level individual can be the voice of the brand, and that may not be the voice that they want."
Most of baseball's in-game tweets are little more than benign swagger: "Here's a look at @RealPFielder28 kicking things off in the 6th by going yard," tweeted the Detroit Tigers after a recent homer by Prince Fielder.
After Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals blew his top over being hit by an apparent brush-back pitch by the Atlanta Braves last month, he was the target of a provocative Braves tweet that said, "Clown move, bro." That drew an ironic retort from the Nationals' official Twitter account, causing yet another sensation.
Braves General Manager Frank Wren then criticized the Braves' tweet as "an inappropriate attempt at humor." And yet the back-and-forth tickled fans watching the exchange unfold over their smartphones. The Nats' reply tweet at the Braves was "favorited" nearly 3,500 times and retweeted more than 7,200 times.
The sports media ate it up. On his ESPN podcast the morning after, commentator Buster Olney praised the authors of such tweets as "brilliant." Added colleague Jayson Stark: "Awesome, I want more."