Sportsheets Founder Tom Stewart Talks Brand Beginnings, Fifty Shades
Tom Stewart and the team at Sportsheets may have been in the right place at the right time, but they’ve masterfully parlayed their brand into the perfect real-life complement to the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon. In this extensive two-part interview, we sit down with the man behind the bondage to discuss...everything.
XBIZ: How did the idea for the original Sportsheets product come into fruition?
Tom Stewart: Back in the late ‘80s David Letterman did one of his stunts where he dressed up in a Velcro suit and launched himself via mini-trampoline onto a Velcro wall and stuck. At that time I was a helicopter pilot in the Marine Corps. One night we were talking about sex, women and flying. Somebody asked if I had seen the Letterman episode. One of the guys in the group said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could stick your girlfriend to a Velcro wall and have sex with her?”
I thought that was pretty interesting and it became an inside joke. But the joke wouldn’t go away. The Velcro wall eventually became a table, then a bed, then someone suggested, “Why not bed sheets?” That’s when it hit me, “Eureka! Velcro bed sheets!” But the biggest reason behind the continuation of the joke was when we asked the females what they thought about being restrained by Velcro, the resounding reply was, “I’d try it, as long as I could get out.”
XBIZ: Tell us about the Sportsheets team.
Stewart: Well there are many people that make up the team. The main players of course are my sister and partner Julie who is the president of the company. Julie’s husband, Ed is the COO and he keeps everything in order and is charge of maintaining the company’s sanity. My wife Kimberly joined us recently after a career as an airline pilot. Our office staff of 14 includes our art department, finance, sales, purchasing and production as well as our marketing and advertising department run by Joanne Queenin. The most visible people are our sales people: Emily Silva, Katrina Falbo, Sylvia Lopez, and in customer support, Jennifer Campbell. Everybody else is working behind the scenes just as hard but the sales force is really the star of the team. They’re the ones selling the products, meeting with our customers and continuing to advance our product lines into the future. Everyone helps with new products and ideas.
XBIZ: What’s the best-selling BDSM item from Sportsheets?
Stewart: That would be the hero of Sportsheets, The Under The Bed Restraint System. It is the most widely carried product in stores across the country. It is also the most imitated product in the industry. You can find at least 12 different versions of it online and all are from China for 10 bucks. The Under The Bed Restraint System has been part of the Sportsheets product mix for over 15 years. It seems to be the quintessential go-to beginner and intermediate product that couples just feel great about purchasing.
XBIZ: Other than the grey tie, has Sportsheets made any specific “ripped from the pages” Fifty Shades of Grey products?
Stewart: There’s a fine line between being ripped from the pages and ripped off from the book. We already manufacture most all of the products that were described in the books. When we saw the book covers we determined that there was an opportunity for people to identify with a grey tie, the masquerade mask and the metal handcuffs. These three images really became iconic not only to the trilogy but also to our Sex&Mischief brand. When you think about the blindfold, the riding crop, the rope; these items were already in the line, which is why Sex&Mischief complements the books so well.
XBIZ: Did Sportsheets have to negotiate any legal/intellectual property obstacles with any of the FSOG themed products?
Stewart: Before Lovehoney was selected as the licensee we made a trip to New York City with other manufacturers to pitch the licensor about getting the license for FSOG products. We showed them our Sex&Mischief line and said how we thought that it captured, in black-and-white images, the essence of what the trilogy was trying to convey. The obstacle for us was how closely so many of the products are to what we were currently making. I’ll give you that a handcuff is a handcuff – and blindfold is exactly a blindfold. We think we’ve walked a pretty straight and up-front line with our Sex&Mischief products – not infringing on the license.
The people at Lovehoney are our customers and good friends. Between both companies, I think we’ve all agreed that even though the products are similar, the branding is certainly miles or kilometers apart. I think the only thing that came up during this entire time was that FSOG had a product that was almost identical to our Under The Bed Restraint System, which has been and will continue to be our little darling product. We spoke with the folks at Lovehoney and asked them to make a modification to the product, which they kindly did, so that it’s not exactly the same. This is the kind of relationship that we’ve had with them. They are great people great to work with – certainly they’re our competitors but everyone’s stayed on the friendly side of business.
XBIZ: Do you think the movies will have more or less of an impact on the pleasure products industry than the books?
Stewart: I think the movie will have more impact due to the sheer volume of people that will be exposed to the movies as compared with the books. For the most part, guys did not read the book, where almost every woman in the world read the book. The ladies are going to be taking their guys to see the movie and for the first time the guys are going to get an idea of what their partner was talking about back in 2012.