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Q&A: Sportsheets Founder Tom Stewart Discusses Evolution of BDSM

Lynn Brown Rosenberg

Tom Stewart, founder and CEO of Sportsheets International, a manufacturer of sex products, got into the pleasure products market more than 20 years ago with the invention of the original “Sportsheet.” After being inspired by a David Letterman episode that involved a Velcro suit, Stewart created the Sportsheet by hand. His idea was to develop products for couples that would allow then to restrain their partner with safe and easy-to-use Velcro.

Since then, Sportsheets has branched into four main brands — Sportsheets, Sex and Mischief, Edge and Manbound — which cater to every level of experience in restraint play. The company is also home to the Sex in the Shower and Sexperiments lines, which bring something unique to the table by, respectively, offering fun gadgets and toys for better shower sex and couples’ kits to add some spark to the bedroom.

Sportsheets doesn’t churn out repetitive products just to add more SKUs to a planogram. We look at what’s missing based on our customers and consumers. We fill the gaps in the market by introducing products that are original designs, products that fulfill real needs and provide couples with a healthier sex life.

Over the last two decades, Stewart continued to build Sportsheets on the fantasy bondage concept, developing more than 400 different products for curious couples.

The newest lines in the Sportsheets family of brands are Edge and Manbound, both of which push Sportsheets into two new categories. The company has always been known for offering products on the lighter side of BDSM, but these two lines aim for a wider audience.

Stewart says he is determined to show that a little leverage goes a long way in the bedroom. He has developed products for couples that enhance certain sexual positions with some leverage and angle adjustments, thereby creating new sensations. Along these lines, Stewart, a veteran with a long history of volunteering with the Wounded Warrior Project, has created products that aid wounded soldiers in regaining a satisfying sex life after incurring mental and physical injuries. The Doggy Style Strap, for instance, can be used not just to make from-behind positions more exciting for able-bodied couples, but as a way for one partner to support the other’s weight when strength is an issue.

In this exclusive interview with Stewart, he discusses the evolution of the Sportsheets brand.

XBIZ: How did you develop a market when you began?

Tom Stewart: I went straight to the source and sold the original Sportsheets at swingers’ conventions. Back then, the adult products industry wasn’t the giant it is today. Selling directly to my consumer was how I built the business. Before “Fifty Shades of Grey,” bondage products were reserved for the dark, dirty, back-corner of adult stores. The market has grown immensely as the taboo associations have been dispelled through mainstream popularity. A lot more people are trying things. Customers are asking, “What else do they make that can blow my mind?”

XBIZ: How have retail sales been affected?

Stewart: Where retail sales had averaged 10 percent for bondage products, it’s now 15-20 percent. It’s helping to replace lost DVD sales.

XBIZ: What else does Sportsheets make besides sex products?

Stewart: Early on, I got the idea of making ties for men just like the one on the cover of the first “Fifty Shades of Grey” book. When the book hit the bestseller list, tie sales rose rapidly. Now you can find men’s fashion in adult stores, a most unusual development. The author, E.L. James was asked the question while on a talk show: “If I want to dip my toe into bondage, where should I start?” E.L. James replied, “With a tie.” Sales went through the roof after that!

XBIZ: What about customers who may be reluctant to pay a lot of money for products that might not be right for them?

Stewart: Some people entering this whole new area might not be ready for a leather whip and ball gags, but would try something like a feather tickler and blindfold, and they can do it inexpensively. My Sex and Mischief line has a lower-priced entry level where a customer can make a purchase for under $20.

XBIZ: What influence, if any, has porn had on this end of the business?

Stewart: The toy industry itself was birthed from the adult movie industry; the two used to be very connected. This is no longer true. Many toy companies have distanced themselves from the porn industry.

Pegging and prostate play has lost its taboo, thus leading to more consumer demand. The new prominence of bondage products, particularly the strap-on harness is a revelation. The more people see, the more people want.

XBIZ: What makes your company/brand different from other companies manufacturing the same or similar products?

Stewart: Sportsheets doesn’t churn out repetitive products just to add more SKUs to a planogram. We look at what’s missing based on our customers and consumers. We fill the gaps in the market by introducing products that are original designs, products that fulfill real needs and provide couples with a healthier sex life.

XBIZ: What keeps your interest in this business?

Stewart: The Sportsheets team is my family, literally and figuratively. On top of having my sister, wife and brother-in-law playing huge roles in our success, our staff have become like extended relatives. Everything we do centers around the amazing people who contribute to the company mission every day. And while new product development is a constant focus and a great deal of fun, what’s most important to my team and me is providing products that will promote overall health and happiness.

And, as we have for the last 20-plus years in the industry, we look forward to spending time with our customers who have become our good friends, and meeting new ones.

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