How long can a business survive? How long can a family-owned business survive? How long can a brother and sister work closely with each other?
In the case of Huntington Beach-based Sportsheets, the correct answer is at least a quarter-century.
The company’s first product—the original Sportsheet—was created by Tom Stewart, inspired by a Late Night with David Letterman episode in the mid-80s in which the host jumped onto a Velcro wall. Thinking this simple technology might be fun to adapt for use with his girlfriend, Tom designed Velcro wrist and ankle restraints and clipped them onto anchor pads that would stick onto a Velcro bedsheet. Like many a tech startup, the Sportsheets brand was born in a garage, with Tom staying up nights to sew his prototypes until he came up with something that would, so to say, stick.
From his base in Costa Mesa, California, Tom began peddling his first Sportsheets out of his beat-up Mazda, which, in true entrepreneurial fashion, frequently ran out of gas. He borrowed money to pursue his dream; soon after, the namesake product became the brand name.
Determined to grow the company, Tom incorporated it in 1993, offering the original Sportsheets and adding separate blindfolds, tethers and sports cuffs, all components of the Sportsheets kit. Made of comfortable nylon fabric with easy-to-use nylon webbing for tethers, these accessories were the perfect follow-up to the Velcro restraints and anchor pads used with their namesake Sportsheets.
Above, the first Sportsheets catalog. Right, Tom Stewart in 1995
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the company, AVN sat down with Julie Stewart, Tom’s beloved sister, who joined the company in 1995 and was named president in 2012.
According to Julie, “Tom is the creative spark of the company, always has been and always will be. He loves training stores and distributors and inventing new products. In fact, he was the one that came up with our signature brands: the Sportsheets line, Sex in the Shower, Man Bound, Edge, Sincerely and—most importantly—our world-famous brand, Sex and Mischief, a playful reference to S&M, which fuels many of our products.”
Product development has always been a key factor in Sportsheets’ success. Fifteen years ago, the trademarked Under the Bed Restraint system was released. Incorporating a four-point, spread-eagle design, the system used nylon webbing and was the first commercially available restraint system that didn’t need bolts screwed into the corners of the bedframe.
“Since we released the Under the Bed Restraint system, we’ve sold over one million of them!” Julie exclaimed. “This is far more than we could have ever dreamed about and continues to be our best seller.”
When the company started in the early ’90s, everything was made in that garage, then in a small warehouse, using materials that were sourced domestically in Southern California. With the emergence of foreign manufacturing in the early 2000s, Tom and Julie decided that the only way to stay competitive, price-wise, was to begin manufacturing overseas.
Center, standing, Julie and Tom Stewart at a company event
“What posed a big problem was that the U.S. manufacturers of our raw materials, such as webbing, saw their mills drying up because they moved their own production companies offshore,” Julie shared. “We had no other choice but to manufacture many of our products overseas, although I am proud to say that we still manufacture 30 to 40 percent of our products right here in our warehouse.”
In fact, a majority of the overseas-manufactured Sportsheets products are imported in bulk so the packaging can be sourced here in the U.S. The products are then packaged in the domestic warehouse, keeping the jobs of long-term employees. Julie added, “Many of our employees have been here since we bought the building 12 years ago. We have a handful of employees that have been with us over 15 years and one who has been with us for 20 of our 25 years. I think retaining our employees for such a long period of time is a key to our continued success.”
The domestic manufacturing includes all the processes needed to keep up with the demand: leather is cut using large presses, miles of webbing are trimmed to exact lengths, fabric is machine cut and then stitched by hand with powerful sewing machines. Several of the products made at the warehouse include feathers, which are carefully sourced domestically for quality and consistency. “In fact,” Julie emphasized, “if the quality is not up to our standards for both our domestic and imported products, we reject it. It’s that simple.”
Product development is what keeps Sportsheets ahead of the competition. “Of course, everyone wants to know ‘What’s new?’ both at the wholesale level and the customer in the retail store,” added Joanne Queenin, Sportsheets’ longtime marketing director. “We keep products on the market for one and a half to two years to give them time to gain traction and if they don’t prove to be strong sellers within that time, then we pull them. We have to stay nimble, not only for us as a company but also for our buyers to keep the lines fresh.”
Of course, with 25 years of manufacturing under their belt, Sportsheets has been pleasantly surprised by the success of several products they’ve released over the years. “When the Fifty Shades of Grey books came out, we thought it would be fun to release a gray tie, which was featured on the cover of the first book. Turns out we ended up selling over 120 thousand units of them!” Joanne exclaimed.
Another best-selling surprise has been a recently released mouth gag that sports a set of giant silicone open lips in black, red or pink with a black leather head strap. Brand Ambassador and Director of Sales Emily Silva, who’s been with Sportsheets for ten years, added, “Everyone always has a good laugh when they see these, so it’s no wonder they’ve been so popular. People don’t realize that BDSM can actually be fun, too!”
Being on the road selling and demonstrating kinky products and accessories for distributors and retailers has kept Emily and the three other sales staffers quite busy. Of course, there are always entertaining experiences when showing store staff and their customers what to do with products. Emily recalled, “One time, I was demo-ing our best-selling Doggie Style Strap, which fits around the hips of the person receiving the action. I kind of felt something in between us, looked down, and realized I still had on a harness and dildo that I had just demonstrated a moment earlier. Whoops! THAT was embarrassing!” Still, many customers really get into volunteering as models for testing out the various Sportsheets items. Emily added, “Once I had to keep from laughing when a woman bent over for a Doggie Style Strap demo and exposed a few inches of butt crack. I didn’t want to point it out to her—bet she didn’t expect to be a demo model that night!”
Sportsheets was also the first company to use in-house video screens and company-supplied instructional videos to promote products at retail stores around the country. “We started doing this over 10 years ago,” Julie shared. “It worked for a time but we also heard that many store staffers turned the screens off because they didn’t want to hear them again and again. With the changing times and way customers get user information, now we’re more focused to provide instructional videos online both on our website and on other video platforms. We will be updating a lot of our content in the very near future, too.”
Most packaging will be upgraded in the following months as well. “The images are going to be more gender-fluid and diverse to reflect the wide range of consumers who love the Sportsheets brand,” Joanne commented. “Many of the packages will have windows to allow the customer to touch the product yet keep it clean in stores. The magnetic closing boxes are also sturdy enough to ship without crushing, which is important for our distributors, retailers and, most importantly, our brand. We list every “ingredient” on our packaging, including type of material and the fact that all of our metal is nickel free. This is in response to those customers who do their research and are concerned about what products are made of.”
Julie also mentioned that some of the lines may change and fall under the original Sportsheets brand. “We have many lines out there and while some of them are pretty distinctive, we want to bring some back to our core products. In fact, part of the new Sportsheets branding includes our new logo, which all of us here are very proud to be releasing this summer. Look for it on all of our packaging, catalogs and everything else created by our company. We’re now focusing on the next 25 years for the brand!”
Sportsheets is also the epitome of “family business,” not only with Tom and Julie in the COO and president positions respectively, but the company also includes their spouses. Tom’s wife, Kimberly, first worked with Tom when they were merely friends and then officially joined the company in 1998, shortly after they were married. Julie’s husband, Eddie, moved west to join Sportsheets and marry Julie after working for an East Coast adult products distributor for many years. “It’s funny,” Julie chuckled, “people always think that Tom and I are husband and wife and get confused when we tell them that Kimberly is married to Tom and Eddie is married to me. It truly IS a family business!”
Tom Stewart’s entrepreneurial drive extends way beyond the Sportsheets brand. He also devotes many hours of training and expertise to the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, a cause that’s close to him given his many years in the Marines. He assists the veterans in staying in their homes after deployment—and most importantly, helping them on their road to recovery after experiencing disabilities associated with war service. Tom finds that he can relate to these soldiers more effectively given his Marines background and can encourage them to create their new normal. He uses his product development skills to innovate products, enabling them to easily adapt to newly required sexual positions to enhance their relationships. “Keeping Couples Connected” has long been the motto of Sportsheets and his work with the soldier’s program truly follows that mission.
So here’s to the next successful 25 years of “Keeping Couples Connected” … and never having Tom Stewart run out of gas again!
Originally published on: https://avn.com/business/articles/novelty/sportsheets-marks-a-quarter-century-of-sex-and-mischief-786574.htmlTags: Kim Airs Sportsheets