When the Las Vegas Raiders take the field this season, they’ll bring a little piece of Bakersfield with them — beyond starting quarterback and Bakersfield Christian alum Derek Carr, that is.
The local medical equipment manufacturer Townsend Design faces stiff competition in supplying its knee and elbow braces and carbon-fiber footplate to professional sports teams. This season, however, the 38-year-old company, owned by French firm Thuasne, will supply the Raiders with specialized bracing for their offensive and defensive lines. The teamwide deal is the first of its kind for the company, said Brian Franklin, its vice president of national accounts. “We’re kind of looked at as a custom shop, or a custom fabrication manufacturer,” Franklin said. “And it’s not just putting an off-the-shelf, or a standard-sizing brace, on one of their million-dollar athletes.” The Raiders relationship was previously nurtured by Townsend’s San Jose-based former Director of Sports Bracing Steve Bartlinski back when the team was in Oakland.
When Townsend was founded in 1984, it didn’t take long to get its equipment on some of the most prominent athletes of the era. The company touts Troy Aikman, John Elway, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice, plus a few key players outside football, like Shaquille O’Neal, among its clients. But over the years, Bartlinski said, Townsend became better known for orthotics and prosthetics beyond the sports world. “There was a little bit of a lull where we didn’t really have a relationship,” Franklin added, “maybe with the newer orthopedic surgeons that were taking kind of the helm as team docs, and some of the newer training staffs that were coming into a lot of the teams.”
Bartlinski was introduced to the product in 2008 as the head athletic trainer at Stanford. He complained to an orthotist friend about how the supposedly “custom-fit” braces he was ordering from other companies never actually fit his athletes, and the friend recommended he give Townsend a shot. “They were super durable … and mechanically, they stayed in place,” Bartlinski said, “the hinge worked similar to what the knee does, and it just made it a really common-sense approach.” He later joined the company in 2017 in a newly created sports bracing role and immediately started drawing on his connections from the training world, using his medical knowledge to help explain the science behind the braces. (Essentially, they use a three-dimensional scan of an extremity to build the brace, which centers on the hinge secured by a non-elastic strap.)
Bartlinski built from the ground up, focusing on junior colleges that might not typically receive preferential treatment from brace manufacturers, with an emphasis on price transparency. At Stanford, he said, a company would offer him 30 braces for free, but then they’d turn around and go to City College of San Francisco and gouge them. “My goal was to basically formulate a program that would be conducive to any budget within the athletic training, sports medicine world,” Bartlinski said. “We provided systematic discounts across the board for schools, whether it be a high school, a junior college like Bakersfield College or the Las Vegas Raiders.” Townsend has strengthened its relationships in recent years, Franklin said, thanks to extensive networking that includes appearances at an alphabet soup of conferences and conventions: the AAOS (American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons), NATA (National Athletic Trainers’ Association), PFATS (Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society) and more.
Bartlinski left Thuasne in 2020 and now leads sports medicine at San Jose State, where the Spartans wear Townsend braces. “I have nothing but fond memories of my time there,” he said, “but I also have nothing but great fond memories and appreciation for the science that was put into creating these braces back in the 80s.”