Why Bethany Hamilton Left Rip Curl With Three Years & Six Figures Left On Her Contract - Stab Mag

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Why Bethany Hamilton Left Rip Curl With Three Years & Six Figures Left On Her Contract

Was an inclusive bikini campaign the end of their quarter-century partnership?

// Nov 8, 2023
Words by Michael Ciaramella & Coral McDuffee
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Rip Curl chose not to comment on this story, and a representative of Bethany said she was unable to comment.

One week ago, Bethany Hamilton posted before-and-after photos on Instagram to commemorate her 20-year journey after the shark attack that famously took her left arm.

On the second slide, the nose of Bethany’s board, which for the past 24 years has been occupied by Rip Curl stickers, appears vacant. 

This is noteworthy, because on January 28th, 2022, Bethany re-signed a five-year deal with her long-time sponsor. Press release pleasantries included: “It feels amazing to have been with Rip Curl for this long, and it really feels like we align on so many different levels.” 

However, this agreement was inked before February 2023, when Bethany took to socials in opposition of the World Surf League’s recently released Transgender policy. The policy stated:

As an Olympic Sport, and with aspirations for all of the WSL’s disciplines to be included in the Olympics, the WSL had adopted the International Surfing Association (ISA) policy on transgender participation. 

According to the WSL, transgender surfers are officially allowed to compete in their identified gender category.

Bethany’s response to the news was a minutes-long Instagram Reel, explaining why she found the ruling contrary to the interests of (biologically) female athletes.

Bethany’s post, which focused on the “fairness” of transgender women competing in the women’s division of surf events, ignited a spectral cacophony of responses (over 23k in total) and drew attention from mainstream outlets like CNN, Fox News, and Daily Mail. 

In the comments, Bethany backed up her stance: “I was messaging with a friend who is a part of the LGBTQ community, and I really don’t think at this point there is a solution that will please everyone. There are different world views and that is part of life. I may not have the perfect answer. But I do feel the way I do and will continue to stand firm in what I shared here.”

This reportedly did not sit well with Rip Curl, who pride themselves in being inclusive. Bethany also stated that she would no longer compete in WSL events unless this rule was amended. 

One month later, the WSL was set to commence with the Meo Rip Curl Pro Portugal — the third event on the 2023 Championship Tour schedule. The event window opened on March 8, which happened to coincide with International Women’s Day. In celebration, the League encouraged Tour surfers to sport the name of an iconic female athlete on the back of their jerseys for the entirety of the event. 

Not a Hamilton in sight. Photo: Diz/WSL

Bettylou Sakura Johnson asked to wear Bethany’s name on her singlet, but the WSL did not allow it. The League asked her to choose a different woman’s name to wear on her jersey, allegedly due to Bethany’s criticism of the WSL’s transgender policy.

This is especially interesting as Rip Curl, Bethany’s sponsor of 24 years, was a headlining partner of the event. 

Jump ahead to the present day: a source who prefers to remain anonymous confirmed that Bethany and Rip Curl have parted ways after nearly a quarter century together, due to a disconnect on ‘core ideals’ — namely the inclusion of a transgender woman in RC’s 2023 Summer Looks Good On You campaign. 

The surfer in question is West Australian longboard champ Sasha Jane Lowerson — the first transgender woman to compete in surfing (and win) — who makes an appearance around the 1:08 mark of the film.

The campaign’s umbrella copy states: No matter where you are, no matter who you are… summer is for everyone, and Summer Looks Good On You.

Made in partnership with Tourism WA, the 2023 Summer Looks Good On You campaign includes a cast of colorfully-adorned Australians (Jamaica Lee, Kobie Enright, Willow Hardy, Tara Jeisman, Jahny Smith, Sasha Jane Lowerson, and Emily Agostino) alongside a black-uniformed troupe called the Sea Gals, who promote mental health and body acceptance. 

According to our source, the decision to terminate the three remaining years on Bethany’s contract was mutual between the athlete and brand, and a condition of their agreement was that neither party would speak publicly or privately about the parting — NDAs were reportedly signed. 

Bethany is among the most well-spoken heads to emerge from surf culture.

By voiding the contract, Bethany has forfeited hundreds of thousands of dollars in guaranteed income over the next three years. Meanwhile, Rip Curl has lost one of their most valuable brand assets. While an amicable split made sense for both Rip Curl and Bethany, their parting does raise a larger question about surfing’s place in the larger cultural zeitgeist. 

The first time transgender rights were widely discussed in the surf world was a little over a year ago, when Sasha Jane Lowerson made headlines for winning the West Australian women’s longboard title. 

The news polarized the surf community, but the discussion mostly centered around whether or not transgender athletes should be allowed to compete in their preferred gender categories — not whether brands should include trans people in marketing campaigns. 

This is an important distinction, especially in regards to Bethany. 

In her previous response to the WSL’s ruling, Bethany proposed that biological distinctions between males and females should be accounted for in sports. She went so far as to recommend an additional division for transgender athletes so that they wouldn’t be excluded from competitive surfing altogether. 

Yet Bethany’s parting with Rip Curl suggests that her take on transgender issues goes beyond advocating for competitive fairness.  

This situation reflects a larger trend in marketing across various industries. While some brands have seamlessly integrated transgender representation into their campaigns, the reception hasn’t been universally positive. Bud Light’s sales dipping after featuring a transgender influencer encapsulates the complexity of social discourse around this subject.

Nonetheless, market data shows that embracing inclusive advertising can resonate positively with consumers, leading to a more progressive brand image and a potential increase in sales. Rip Curl’s promotion of a trans athlete, especially within the surf industry, may mark a significant step forward, despite losing one of their longest and strongest-held partnerships in the process.

In the most difficult surf sponsorship climate of the past 20 years, this uncoupling is a surprising one. We have a juggernaut superstar who is perhaps the most famous surfer alive, challenged only by Kelly Slater. We have an incredible brand with a rich history supporting surfing’s greats. The divergence between Bethany and Rip Curl emphasizes the delicate interplay between personal convictions, brand representation, and the ongoing evolution of inclusive marketing practices in contemporary culture.

Editor’s note: Whatever your stance, please be civil in the comments and remember there are humans on the other side of the screen. 


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