In this interview, Sportsheets’ new Commercial Director, Kelly Sofferman, discusses her dual approach to respecting the originating vision of Sportsheets, while strategically challenging the existing status quo to promote growth.

(Note: This story appears in the April 2024 issue of SE Magazine

In 1993, Sportsheets was founded by siblings Tom and Julie Stewart, notably inspired by the 1984 David Letterman Velcro Man comedic skit. Their first product, The Original Sportsheet, utilized hook and loop technology that allowed you to “only be as tied up as you want to be.” Now, more than 30 years later, Sportsheets is known as a household name for BDSM at all levels. With its quality genuine leather and vegan leather bondage and positioning products at all price points, Sportsheets transforms connection and intimacy between couples of all kinds.

Kelly Sofferman, the Commercial Director of Sportsheets, fell for the inventiveness of the Sportsheets brand at a time when she was taking courses in human sexuality and considering shifting her career into the adult wellness category, while working for a CBD startup in California. The opportunity to merge her professional skills with her personal interests had her instantly committed to the Sportsheets journey. Sofferman, who has a history working in management for various markets, advanced quickly at Sportsheets.

Today, as Commercial Director, and right-hand woman to Julie Stewart, CEO of Sportsheets, Sofferman manages the corporate side of the 30-person team, which is divided between warehouse operation and corporate marketing, product development and sales. Sofferman shares that she and Stewart make a majority of their decisions together, and when Stewart is unavailable, she is entrusted with guiding the company forward.

Leading a 30-year-old company like Sportsheets in the adult novelty industry as a relative newcomer certainly comes with challenges. However, Sofferman shares that she has the advantage of diverse retail expertise and a knack for innovative solutions which helps to keep Sportsheets both fresh and foundational.

Sofferman has been in her Commercial role for six months now, transitioning from her previous role as Brand and Marketing Manager. In this SE Interview, she shares about the go-to-market (GTM) strategy she both developed and implemented for Sportsheets, which has revolutionized their product development approach and expedited their product release timelines. Additionally, Sofferman offers a sneak peak of a major rebranding of a well-known Sportsheets line, coming this year, as well as some of her more candid thoughts on common misconceptions about BDSM play and positioning.

SE: What is your history in working in retail like? What drew you to working with Sportsheets initially, and why have you remained loyal to the soft bondage company since you first began in the adult industry?

SOFFERMAN: My history in working in retail has been dynamic and diverse. I developed a knack for retail early on, obtaining my worker’s permit so I could spend my high school summers working 40 hours a week at Crazy Shirts rather than laying on the beach with friends. After a few years in college at SFSU, I discovered my passion for hands-on environments over desk work. Over my 10 years in San Francisco, I held various roles, ranging from store manager, to area manager for high-end skincare company Aesop, to general manager of Sugarfina.

Upon transitioning from San Francisco to home in Laguna Beach, I attended city college to study human sexuality and gender studies while working for a CBD startup in Irvine. However, when a recruiter approached me about the Marketing Coordinator position at Sportsheets, it felt like the universe aligned my personal passion with my career.

Joining Sportsheets marked a pivotal moment for me. The company’s commitment to the adult industry and its innovative approach to soft bondage products resonated with my passion for human sexuality. I went into the role full force, recognizing that this was a unique opportunity to align my expertise in retail with something deeply meaningful to me. Since then, I’ve remained loyal, engaged and committed to the company’s vision because it allows me to contribute to a dynamic and progressive company in an industry I am personally passionate about.

SE: What challenges do you face in leading a 30-year-old company as someone relatively new to the industry? What advantages do you specifically bring to the table? 

SOFFERMAN: Leading a 30-year-old company like Sportsheets in the adult novelty industry comes with its unique set of challenges and advantages. In an industry that is known for being tight-knit and often family-oriented, stepping into a leadership role as someone relatively new requires a deep understanding of the market dynamics, the history of the company and the delicate balance between tradition and innovation.

Challenges I’ve faced include navigating the intricacies of established relationships within the industry, building trust and gaining insights from those who have been part of this journey for decades. Adapting to the nuances of the adult novelty market, with its changing trends and evolving consumer preferences, demands a keen awareness of both the industry’s history and its future potential.

On the flip side, being relatively new to the industry brings a fresh perspective and a unique set of skills. My background outside the adult novelty space allows me to approach challenges with innovative solutions, drawing inspiration from diverse industries. This fresh outlook helps us explore new markets, diversify our product offerings and keep Sportsheets at the forefront of creativity and quality within the adult novelty sector.

I deeply honor the foundational vision of the Stewarts, recognizing their contributions to the company’s success and reputation in the adult novelty industry. This involves understanding the core values, principles and goals that shaped Sportsheets from its inception. It’s crucial to preserve the essence of what has made the company unique and successful.

Collaborating with a team that includes industry veterans and combining their wealth of knowledge with my fresh insights has proven to be a powerful combination. The advantage lies in our ability to blend tradition with innovation, ensuring that Sportsheets continues to thrive as a dynamic and forward-thinking player in the adult novelty industry.

SE: What has changed already at Sportsheets under your direction? 

SOFFERMAN: In the relatively short time since I’ve transitioned into the Commercial role from my previous role as Brand and Marketing Manager, we’ve implemented significant changes under my direction. One key transformation has been the restructuring of the team, with the sales department now falling under my umbrella. This adjustment has fostered a more integrated and collaborative environment within the commercial team, resulting in streamlined communication and improved cohesion.

A major achievement during my tenure is the development and implementation of a robust go-to-market (GTM) strategy. I streamlined our process into one that includes all of our commercial teams, from product, to sales, to marketing. By involving all teams throughout the process, we’ve created a feedback loop that occurs consistently, rather than waiting until the end.

The incorporation of all teams in the GTM strategy has not only expedited the product development process but has also provided valuable insights and feedback throughout. This iterative approach has positively influenced sales outcomes, enabling our customers to be better prepared to market and sell our products effectively.

SE: What products and product lines are you focusing on moving forward in 2024? Any new collections or new releases for current collections you can share about?

SOFFERMAN: Last year was the 30th year for Sportsheets, and we took it as an opportunity to consider what we want the future to look like. We took 2023 to plan the entire 2024 of products. After reviewing our full range of brands, and determining the holes we could fill, we have an ambitious selection of products coming out this year.

Right now, Sportsheets, Sex and Mischief, Sincerely and Edge are the four main brands underneath the Sportsheets company. We are going to dissolve Sincerely and migrate those products into Sex and Mischief. Sincerely hasn’t had new products added to it in a while, and it just kind of gets lost. Instead of reviving Sincerely, we’re going to strengthen the recognition in each of our three remaining brands.

The goal for Sportsheets is to guide the consumer through their exploration with bondage. One might start with their first reusable ball gag or blindfold, something that doesn’t totally block out all the light, from Sex and Mischief. And then, years down the line, they end up with a real leather, larger silicone ball — maybe it locks, so it’s really stuck on you until someone takes it off — and a full blackout blindfold.

Internally, we talk a lot about ‘good,’ ‘better’ and ‘best.’ For ‘good,’ we have the Sex and Mischief line, which is the introductory line. Almost everything retails for under $30, so it’s very affordable. It’s still going to last you, and we have unlimited lifetime warranty on all of our products, but there’s a little bit more freedom to the purchase at this price point. It can be introductory to a new type of play or expand on something that you’re just starting out in.

And then, Sportsheets is ‘better.’ It’s our namesake brand with a wide variety, everything from impact, to strap-ons, to dildos. It has it all under the bondage umbrella. 

All of Sex and Mischief is vegan leather and the majority of Sportsheets is vegan leather. We use PU, because of price, so that these products are accessible to customers. We’ve worked with a variety of co-manufacturers to find the best quality products that feel good, don’t smell and aren’t going to wear down, but still get consumers the price that they want from these brands.

And then we have Edge, which is ‘best.’ The Edge brand is all genuine leather. We haven’t done much with Edge in a long time, which is why I see a real opportunity to revive this brand, and we’re doing that now. We’re re-branding Edge and relaunching with some of the existing products, which will all get a little face-lift, as well as 12 new products.

I’m excited that we’re really defining these three brands, who they’re for and what’s in them. All three will ultimately have products released in them, but we’re ending 2024 with the re-launch of Edge, in September, right before October “Pinktober,” for our retailers who push that.

SE: What do people who have never tried it often misunderstand about BDSM? What can you say about the role BDSM may play in intimacy in couples?

SOFFERMAN: People who are unfamiliar with bondage often think it’s scary. They assume that it’s going to be extreme, painful and sudden, which is really not how it should be. There should be so much communication before, to ensure, whether it’s two people playing, or multiple, that all the play is safe and consensual. An individual’s limits, how to use the product for the most pleasure — all of this should be taken into account. It’s actually such a trust exercise to even begin exploring bondage.

Another misconception is that the sub has no choice in what’s happening, when, really, they’re almost the directors of what’s going on because they’re choosing what type of play they’re open to and how much they want of it. When the scene is done, they say the scene is done or not. That should be it, whether they’re working with a respectful Dom or are just a vanilla couple trying out an impact toy for the first time. Whoever is getting spanked, when they stand up, that’s when it ends. 

If you’re willing to go there, it can be a really beautiful reward to release — to allow yourself to experience something in the present, and not to worry about the future because you have that trust with your partner.

SE: How do you distinguish between bondage and positioning devices?  

SOFFERMAN: I think those terms are generally interchangeable, but sometimes consumers need to compartmentalize them separately, because ‘bondage’ can seem so scary.

I suppose that the intentions could be different. Most of our products are considered bondage or bondage-adjacent, for play. Positioning is really about extending or enhancing pleasure. It was a balance for us to develop Pivot, a positioning line within our bondage company, knowing that our customers and consumers both having expectations about what type of product we put out. 

The Pivot collection is meant to be accessible to all — and yes, you can attach posts to them. Yes, you can use them to elevate a body part for impact play or restraint. But Pivot products can also transition to people of all agents, from fully able-bodied, to someone who may not be able to lift all of their parts of their body or they may need help extending play. In that sense, the positioning is really trying to reduce pain and increase pleasure.

SE: What is your opinion on the state of adult retail today?

SOFFERMAN: We know our customers’ foot traffic is down. We know people are really competitively price shopping in stores, so we really think about how we can support our retail brick and mortars.

We have heard over and over that new product is a driver, so we’re making sure that we have a really comprehensive and exciting new product catalog to offer. There are a lot of companies that just take the same product and make it in a different color, which is totally fine. I’m sure there are people that want it in black and in blue. But we’re really keen on developing from scratch, and we have been for the past two years. It’s quite literally a team of us in a room drawing, and we still do quite a bit of manufacturing on site. We have someone come in, cut and sew something, so that we have a competitive edge. It’s not just a new ball gag in black with different studs, or a new breathable ball cap with a bigger size ball.

It’s so expensive to mom and pop stores to fly out to see these new products. Of course, we have such deep relationships with our distributors, but people who own their stores and run their shops want to be involved in everything. This year, we’re really hitting the ground hard with traveling and making sure that we’re going to them if they can’t come to the shows. Our distributors have so many customers, and while they do a great job, we can’t rely on them to service everyone. We have to complement their efforts by getting out there, to be in those smaller stores, as well as the big chains. 

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