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Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith is ready for our brave new NIL world

(C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images)

Hailey Van Lith barely had time to relax this summer, let alone keep up with the flurry of developments surrounding name, image and likeness rights for college athletes.

After Louisville’s basketball season ended in a loss to Stanford in the Elite Eight of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Van Lith spent most of her summer in Los Angeles training with skills coach Jordan Lawley. She worked on her game and on re-building her confidence after a freshman season she says was “up and down” for both the team and her mentally.

She wasn’t thinking much about NIL legislation and what it would mean for her until she got a text in late June. Van Lith learned that Kentucky governor Andy Beshear had just signed an executive order making Kentucky the seventh state to allow college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness by July 1.

“I had always been dreaming of what I could do with it, but I don’t know if I ever really took it seriously, just never having seen anything like that done before,” Van Lith said during a sitdown interview in midtown Manhattan before the NBA Draft late last month.

Six days after Kentucky signed its bill into law, the NCAA adopted an interim policy granting NIL rights to all current and incoming student-athletes. From there, Van Lith’s eyes were opened to a whole assortment of possibilities.

“It’s just crazy,” she said. “We have so much potential to grow the game and allow ourselves to be successful, but the rules have kept us held back till now. So, I think we can really explode and take it over.”

Van Lith remembered an Opendorse report that came out during the NCAA Tournament in March estimating the annual earnings for the top athletes in the Elite Eight based on their social media followings, market size and school revenue. Eight of the top 10 athletes listed were women, and Van Lith was projected to make $965,000 annually, more than any other athlete by a wide margin.

The No. 7 recruit in the 2020 class, and the highest-ranked player to sign with the Cardinals since 2015, Van Lith had a following before she arrived at Louisville. She lived up to that promise during her freshman season, earning a spot on the All-ACC Freshman Team after averaging 11.2 points per game as a starting guard alongside senior Dana Evans. By the time of the Elite Eight in late March, Van Lith had 696,000 followers on social media.

The timing of the report’s release wasn’t lost on Van Lith. Just weeks earlier, the NCAA had come under fire after social media posts revealed disparities in facilities and resources between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, forcing NCAA president Mark Emmert to apologize.

“I think the biggest part is everyone’s like, ‘Oh, people don’t want to watch women’s basketball,’ but the times they’ve actually put it on main TV channels where people can find it, it gets watched,” Van Lith said. “I think with NIL, allowing individuals to push that more than just schools and universities, there will be a lot more push behind getting those games broadcasted and brands getting more involved with individual players.”

Indeed television ratings for the women’s NCAA Tournament this year were up, and Van Lith’s own social media following has grown since then, as well.

She now has 713,0000 followers on Instagram and has multiple people helping her determine what and when to post, including her parents. She also signed with Octagon as one of the sports agency’s first NIL representation clients.

“Sometimes I’m like, wow, there’s way too many people that care about what I want to post,” Van Lith said. “I’m mindful about what I can and can’t do and like, ‘Will this help me target the right audience if I post this?’ There’s a lot more thought going into my social media now than there was before.”

In both her words and her actions, Van Lith points to two near-term consequences of the NIL rules: With money on the line, athletes will start behaving like businesses. And female athletes, in particular, will finally know their actual value.

Just as the Opendorse report was released amid the outcry over the NCAA’s handling of the women’s basketball tournament, NIL rules are changing at the same time that we’re beginning to understand the depth of the NCAA’s gender inequities.

The Kaplan report, published last week after an investigation by an outside law firm, found that the NCAA has systematically undervalued its female athletes, especially its high-profile basketball players. Now Van Lith and other stars have an opportunity through individual deals to create a more accurate picture of the value they bring.

But Van Lith isn’t just in it for the money.

She says she’s focused on working with brands that align with both her interests, such as streetwear and fashion, and with causes that are important to her. At the top of her list are companies that are committed to elevating women in sports.

“Whether that’s incorporating teammates into my deals or other women athletes that I think deserve a platform, I have an opportunity to give them that platform and just push for representation of more female athletes,” she said.

Van Lith also recognizes the racial disparities that exist in the marketing and media coverage of athletes and wants to help be a part of the solution. Paige Bueckers’ call to shine a light on Black women during her acceptance speech at the ESPYs in July resonated with Van Lith, who has played with Bueckers on the USA Basketball youth circuit.

“Now it’s my job to make sure other girls behind me get that same platform,” Van Lith said. “I’m obviously white and a lot of my teammates are Black, and just making sure that I push them because I know that they deserve it just as much as I do.”

Van Lith is just starting to learn how to navigate the NIL landscape and the responsibilities that come with being more than a student-athlete. It’s a lot for a 19-year-old to wrap her head around, but Van Lith hasn’t had much time to think about it in the past few weeks.

After watching her boyfriend, Jalen Suggs, get drafted fifth overall by the Orlando Magic in New York City, Van Lith flew to France to compete with Team USA in the 3×3 U23 Nations League tournament. Playing two to three games every day from Aug. 2-4, Van Lith and her U.S. teammates — including Louisville transfer Emily Engstler — finished second in the standings behind the host country. From there, she headed back to Louisville for basketball camps and will get just a short break before classes start on Aug. 22.

Then, it’s onto the college basketball season, which Van Lith is calling “national championship or bust” for Louisville. The Cardinals lost Dana Evans to graduation and the WNBA, but they have multiple transfers, No. 12 recruit Payton Verhulst and a more self-assured Van Lith leading them in the backcourt.

“Last year, I didn’t always trust myself. I would have confidence dips, and at the highest level, it’s hard to have confidence dips because the competition is so tough,” she said. “I grew up a lot. I know a lot more about making relationships with teammates and how to just connect with people and make them better. So I’m really excited about next year.”

In an NIL world, excitement abounds in more ways than one.