When David Letterman, in a Velcro suit, catapulted himself onto a wall — and stuck — in a Stupid Human Trick, Tom Stewart thought, Wouldn't it be cool if you could do that on a bed? And Sportsheets — the company and the product — was born. Its first product: a Velcro bed sheet that came with neoprene restraining wrist cuffs.
"The Sportsheet itself started out as a kind of bondage for beginners, with the tagline 'You're only as tied up as you want to be,' because of the Velcro and ease of getting out of it," says Todd Carter, Director of Sales. "So it really started out as a company that was about safe bondage, that made women who wanted to be tied up by their boyfriends or husbands feel safe."
Three years after the company was formed, Stewart's sister Julie joined, and new products started to be developed. Last July, the company launched a straight and a gay line that have since helped it earn three of its highest sales months ever. The gay line is Manline, an aggressive relaunch of products geared toward gay men with the tagline "Hard, rough, and in control."
"Julie and Tom had gotten the feedback over the last few years: We didn't have any male packaging, and the gay retail stores were asking for it," Carter says. "We tried dual-sided packaging for a while, one side is a woman, you flip it over and the other side is a man. It didn't really work."
The new line was developed with the help of Prerogatives, a San Francisco-based distributor whose primary customer base is independent gay retail stores. They tested products and images, and it became apparent that a brand new look had to be created. So Sportsheets laid out an extensive marketing campaign that included new packaging geared toward men, all marked by eyecatching images that proved equally effective in a print ad campaign.
"Pretty much all of our Manbound products — there are about thirty-five right now — all of them, with the exception of two, are existing Sportsheets products. One of these is an improvement of an existing Sportsheets product and another one was developed for Manline, the reversible cock ring harness," Carter says. "The thing that sets it apart is its imaging and inserts and advertising."
From the taut butt-cheeks on the Bondage Starter Kit and the Anal Ring Toss game to the ripped abs on the Versatile Sports Cuffs model to the so-hot-it's-scorching naked couple on The Hard Rider, the packaging succeeds in grabbing everyone's attention.
"It's the most explicit packaging Sportsheets has ever done. The Hard Rider, especially. People have asked, 'Do you have 2257 documentation on that?' We're like, yeah," Carter says. "If you could have seen it blown up eight-feet-tall in Vegas, I don't know if you would have ever left the booth. It was striking."
Carter stresses that the placement of the product is just as important. "We developed Manbound saying, 'If you're a 'straight' adult store and you don't have a gay section, don't buy this product. We made this product for gay stores or stores that have a gay section," Carter says. "What we did not want was for our Doggy-Style Strap in the Sportsheets line to be sitting right beside The Hard Rider, which is the gay version of it, because our thinking is, it's a different consumer. We don't want to mix them up."
Cracking the gay market proved easier than Carter and company thought. "Probably the most nerve-wracking thing wasn't getting it sold, it was, Are we going to have sell-through? That's why we didn't develop a whole bunch of new products. Because our initial investment has really been in the marketing end, and that minimized our risk."
Sportsheets ran consumer advertising and did localized advertising, used co-op advertising to support retailers in states like Texas and California, and used national advertising through Specialty Publications. The company also signed on as one of the sponsors of the GAYVN Awards. "We're putting a lot of marketing muscle behind Manbound, and doing a lot of things that Sportsheets has never done before as a company as far as direct consumer marketing," Carter says. "We're doing some different kinds of fun stuff. I think the gay market lends itself more to that than the straight market."
And Manbound has been a huge hit, even with the hardcore audience Carter feared would shun it as "vanilla bondage." "To get the feedback that we got at the GAYVN Expo, from people I don't consider to be novices… the response was phenomenal. Johnny Hazzard from Channel 1 was so fucking excited to get a Hard Rider he couldn't stand it," says Carter with a laugh. "I was surprised at the excitement of porn stars and Titan Media, and those guys that are going, 'Holy shit, this is good stuff!' Because those are the men who fuck for a living."
"What we've discovered with Manbound is that you can do some harder-edged stuff," Carter says. "We get to make it whatever we want. I don't have to worry about too hard or too soft. Bottom line, it's quality stuff."