As our inaugural interview, we are proud to feature a conversation with the founder and CEO of Sportsheets International, Tom Stewart. Over the last two decades, his company has been recognized as a leading brand for its commitment to quality, design and fun. Sportsheets' origin story starts in 1984 when David Letterman was hurled at a VELCRO wall where he hung like an insect on flypaper. And in that moment, a premiere couples product was born.
So what about the name? Turns out that it is a combination of bedsheets (obviously) and “sport-fucking” (i.e. “hooking up”). But without the explanation, the name is pretty innocuous and makes it easier to market the business. Let’s face it, as Tom points out, securing financing for a company called “FuckSheets” could pose a problem.
If you are not familiar with the Original Sportsheet, here is how it works. The basis of the system is a fitted sheet which is made of a giant VELCRO loop material (the soft plushy material, as opposed to “hook” which is the hard bristly stuff). The hand and ankle restraints are on pads which you can then attach anywhere on the fitted sheet, making it very customizable. Here is the best part – if you’ve read Gerald’s Game by Stephen King and are nervous about getting stuck with no escape, you can still get yourself loose by simply peeling away the restraint making it ideal for beginners and experienced partners alike.
From its inception, SPORTSHEETS has been an innovator and originator of products designed to keep couples together. Tom, who came up with the original design, says that for the new person looking at their line, "It's about better sex....It's about enhancing the sexual experience…not dominating."
As leaders they are susceptible to imitation by competitors who don't understand the rationale for SPORTSHEET designs which incorporate fail-safe mechanisms to allow escape in worst case scenarios. Tom and his team hold quality and safety paramount in their approach to product development.
When asked about the lack of regulation over the manufacture and safety of adult products, Tom says that this allows smaller companies like his to differentiate themselves from the larger manufacturers. SPORTSHEETS manufacturers Ben Wa Balls made from stainless steel even though it would be less costly to produce chrome-plated versions with iron cores. (These are the only metal Ben Wa Balls which MoreThanSexToys™ offers).
The FIFTY SHADES OF GREY phenomenon has fueled interest in BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, Submission and Masochism). "The appeal is always there" says Tom who believes that if people were a little more courageous or adventurous in bedroom, everyone would try bondage.
Because BDSM has gained wider acceptance and interest, SPORTSHEETS has been able to leverage their innovations such as the Beginner's bondage kits which they continue today in their SEXPERIMENTS line. Couples are better able to talk openly about this which has opened opportunities to a much larger market. It is important for manufacturers like them to capitalize on that and build on the momentum.
Retailers like Target, Walmart and RiteAid have tried to tap into this interest by offering the official Fifty Shades line of products from Lovehoney. Their efforts were however somewhat ham-handed. They assumed that if they could sell the books, then selling the products would be easy. They however neglected to incorporate the necessary advice or context for those items.
It is hard to ignore the impact of the largest retailer on the planet, AMAZON, which has created a race to the bottom in pricing (Full disclosure: MoreThanSexToys™ has an AMAZON storefront). According to SPORTSHEETS VP International Sales, Corrin Brubaker, while AMAZON does bring products to people in a comfortable environment, “The consumer wins if they are getting a genuine product.”
“One of the challenges is that there are a lot of counterfeit items sold under our name… Unfortunately we have to spend a lot of time protecting our name because of Amazon, eBay, Alibaba, etc." By contrast, eBay is much better about enforcing authenticity in products.
The most notable development in the industry over the last twenty years is the improvement in quality which smaller companies like SPORTSHEETS and TANTUS have been spearheading. Tom credits TANTUS founder, Metis Black, for leading the use of high quality and body safe materials such as silicone. "Metis wasn't the first to make a silicone dildo but she led the charge up the hill." (See our interview with Metis)
The SPORTSHEETS CEO describes this change in approach as a “seismic shift.” Whereas the sales approach used to be “put it on the wall and it will sell,” adult products have become more upscale as the industry has attempted to broaden its appeal and shed the “dirty bookstore” stigma. This has forced the industry’s largest players, including CALEXOTICS and DOC JOHNSON, to change how they do business as well.
Material selection is critical not only to safety and quality but also to customer comfort. Many of SPORTSHEETS’ products are made with Neoprene (LYCRA® lining between foam and nylon top) because the material is inert or non-reactive to skin. They are careful about sourcing leather and make sure that their metal components (studs, rings, snaps, buckles, etc.) do not contain nickel despite its higher cost.
Taking time to develop quality sexual wellness products is the hallmark of SPORTSHEETS and the key to their success. As Tom asserts, "If you are going to pay for something, you should get your money's worth." They start with what the market demands. As the American waistline has expanded over the years, their company was the first to introduce a plus size strap-on and corset.
One of the reasons that we are proud to carry SPORTSHEETS products is our shared desire to provide products that help clients overcome physical disabilities or limitations. We are particularly moved by a story in VICE about their dedication to helping a wounded solider and his wife regain some of their past sex life after a severe injury. Tom regards this as part of the give-back to his fellow veterans as well as a pivotal moment in product development. While the gentleman was happy to utilize a strap-on with thigh attachment but the SPORTSHEETS founder wanted to give him more so he designed a harness allowing him to be on top of his partner.
Anyone interested in becoming a product reviewer, can go to the SPORTSHEETS website and be one of the more than 400 applicants. Be ready though, because when the inspiration strikes according to Corrin “We're very good at whipping up prototypes.”