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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.

Seattle Reign Stars Barnes, Fishlock Back New USL W League Team

usl w league ballard vice president tiffany mallick holding an official usl w ball
Joining May 2025, Seattle’s USL W team will be the sixth in the league’s Northwest division. (Ballard FC/YouTube)

On Tuesday, 25 Seattle-based sports and business professionals announced their investment in a new USL W League team operated by popular semi-pro USL League Two men’s side Ballard FC.

Headlined by Lauren Barnes (Seattle Reign), Jess Fishlock (Seattle Reign), Olivia Van der Jagt (Seattle Reign), and Sam Hiatt (Gotham FC), alongside Seattle Storm co-owner Ginny Glider and Jen Barnes, owner of the women's sports-focused Rough & Tumble Pub, the yet-to-be-named Ballard squad will enter the pre-professional league next May.

Current Ballard FC president Sam Zisette will oversee both the men’s and women’s clubs, while vice president and seasoned athletic trainer Tiffany Mallick will shift her focus on the women's team.

"Our goal is to create better opportunities for young women to develop their skills on and off the field," said Reign captain Lauren Barnes in a team press release. "The path to professional soccer didn’t exist on the same scale while I was growing up, and I’m thrilled to be part of changing that for future players."

"Introducing a USL W League team to Ballard is a monumental step in advancing our organization and soccer community," added Zisette. "Ballard is a special place with an immense sense of pride, passionate spirit, and love for soccer. We can’t wait to see the community embrace this new team!"

Tampa Bay United Soccer Club
Launched in 2022, the USL W League now fields 80 teams across four conferences. (USL W League)

What is the USL?

The United Soccer League (USL), which organizes multiple US leagues across all divisions, has recently upped its commitment to the women's game.

In addition to the developmental USL W League — which started in 2022 and now fields 80 teams across four conferences plus three 2025 expansion teams, including Ballard — USL is set to launch the fully professional USL Super League next month.

With eight inaugural clubs (and plans to expand to 20 teams by 2026), the USL Super League will join the NWSL as the only other Division 1 women’s league in the country. But unlike the NWSL, the USL Super League will mirror the European schedule, operating from fall through spring with its official kickoff slated for August 17th.

As with USL W Ballard, the Super League also has some star power behind it. In May, WNBA All-Star rookie Angel Reese joined the ownership group of Washington's forthcoming DC Power FC.

USL W League finalists South Georgia Tormenta FC v Minnesota Aurora FC
The 2024 USL W League's semifinals kick off on Saturday, July 13th. (Jeremy Olson/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

USL W League gears up for postseason action

But before the USL Super League takes the pitch, their pre-professional counterparts will finish up their 2024 postseason run.

On Saturday, the USL W's four conference champions will square off in the league semifinals on Saturday, July 13th, with NC Courage U23 hosting Tennessee SC and the Colorado Storm facing Detroit City FC in Michigan. Winners from those two matches will then battle it out at the USL W League final on July 20th.

All USL W postseason action can be streamed live on SportsEngine Play.

Wilson, Clark Put Up Record-Breaking Numbers in Midweek WNBA Action

WNBA Las Vegas Aces A'ja Wilson blocks Nneka Ogwumike of the Seattle Storm
Las Vegas's A'ja Wilson added to her lengthy stat sheet on Wednesday. (Scott Eklund/NBAE via Getty Images)

Around the WNBA, big-name players A'ja Wilson, Kahleah Copper, Caitlin Clark, and Angel Reese made good use of Wednesday's jam-packed five-game schedule, kicking off a pre-All-Star Weekend campaign that promises not to disappoint.

Aces' A'ja Wilson racks up a perfect 20/20

Two-time MVP A’ja Wilson was the star of the show yesterday, throwing down epic numbers in one of her most successful performances so far this season

Wilson registered a 24-point, 20-rebound double-double in the Aces’ 84-79 win over Seattle, marking the six-time All-Star's first-ever 20/20 game.

Storm guard Jewell Loyd’s 28 points led the game, but between Wilson’s numbers and fellow Ace Jackie Young’s 27 points, Vegas managed to leapfrog fifth-place Seattle to secure a fourth-place spot in the WNBA standings.

WNBA star Kahleah Copper of the Phoenix Mercury drives to the basket against the Dallas Wings
With 32 points, Mercury standout Kahleah Copper led the WNBA in scoring Wednesday. (Kate Frese/NBAE via Getty Images)

Top-ranked WNBA teams keep scoring

At the top of the table, the Liberty beat the Sun 71-68 to oust Connecticut from the pair's previous tie for first in the standings. 

2024 WNBA All-Star DeWanna Bonner’s 22 points led the Sun, while Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu sank 21 points alongside Breanna Stewart’s 18-point, 14-rebound double-double to extend New York's record to 18-4 on the season.

And in Phoenix, the Mercury dominated the last-place Wings 100-84 behind Kahleah Copper’s 32 points — the most drained by any player that day. Yet despite double-doubles from both Teaira McCowan and Arike Ogunbowale, Dallas fell to 5-18 on the season with the loss.

WNBA Indiana Fever guard Caitlin Clark shoots in a game against the Washington Mystics
WNBA rookie phenom Caitlin Clark dropped 29 points for Indiana on Wednesday. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rookies Clark, Reese, and Cardoso put up numbers

Fever star Caitlin Clark owned Indiana's stat sheet yesterday with 29 points and 13 assists, becoming the first player in WNBA or NBA history to drop 25+ points, five rebounds, 10+ assists, five steals, and three blocks in a single game.

Clark's effort wasn't enough to hold off the otherwise struggling Mystics, however, who stunned the Fever 89-84 behind a monster 26 points from Ariel Atkins

Chicago's rookies joined forces to lift the Sky over the Dream 78-69, as Kamilla Cardoso added her own double-double to teammate Angel Reese’s record-extending 14th

This season, Reese and Cardoso have combined to average just under 20 rebounds per game so far this season. If that metric holds, they’ll make WNBA history with the highest average for any duo in a single season.

A 2024 WNBA All-Star banner hangs outside the Footprint Center
Only 15 regular season games remain before WNBA All-Star Weekend in Phoenix. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

What happens next for WNBA teams

With All-Star Weekend tipping off one week from today, only 15 regular season games remain before the WNBA's scheduled Olympic break.

Whether they currently sit in first or last place, all 12 teams will want to hit the ground running when play resumes on August 15th.

NBA 2K25 to Feature WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson on Cover

NBA 2K25 WNBA Edition Cover starring A'ja Wilson
Five-time WNBA All-Star A'ja Wilson will feature on both the NBA 2K25 WNBA and the dual-league NBA 2K25 All-Star Edition covers. (NBA 2K25)

Today, NBA 2K25 announced back-to-back WNBA Champion, two-time WNBA MVP, and six-time WNBA All-Star A’ja Wilson as its latest cover athlete.

Las Vegas's newly minted all-time leading scorer, Wilson will grace the cover of the GameStop exclusive NBA 2K25 WNBA Edition. She will also be featured on the dual-league All-Star Edition alongside 2024 NBA Champion Jayson Tatum.

"Being featured on the NBA 2K25 cover is a big moment for me and a testament to the ever-growing fandom of the WNBA," said A’ja Wilson in Wednesday's press release. "Seeing more and more WNBA athletes scanned into NBA 2K25 to best capture the style and confidence of the league has been empowering, and I can't wait for fans to experience it in-game."

Wilson has had a standout season so far. The back-to-back reigning Defensive Player of the Year not only topped the Aces' all-time scoring list, but also leads the league in points per game with an average of 27 and sits second in average rebounds per game with 10.9. In May, she announced a signature shoe deal with Nike, and later this month, she'll be heading to Paris as a part of Team USA's 12-player Olympic 5×5 roster. It will be the 27-year-old's second time competing in the Summer Games.

"In a year that showcases competition at the highest level — and in a play style that is uniquely one’s own, we’re thrilled to share Jayson, A’ja, and Vince as the NBA 2K25 cover athletes" said Greg Thomas, president at 2K studio Visual Concepts. "The development team has delivered another innovative experience for basketball lovers, setting up NBA 2K25 to be the next icon in this long-standing dynasty."

nba 2k25 wnba cover star a'ja wilson
"Seeing more and more WNBA athletes scanned into NBA 2K25 to best capture the style and confidence of the league has been empowering," said Wilson. (NBA 2K25)

The New-Gen version of the video game is available on PS5, Xbox Series X|S, and PC. Powered by enhanced ProPLAYTM technology, the release delivers the franchise’s most true-to-life basketball experience yet, offering players the ultimate control in how they dominate the competition in modes such as MyNBA, The W, and in The City.

According to the press release, the WNBA Edition will be available for $69.99 while the All-Star Edition will run $99.99. NBA 2K25 will be available on September 6th on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch.

NWSL Awards Race Heats Up Ahead of Olympic Break

Temwa Chawinga of the Kansas City Current runs with the ball in an NWSL game with the Portland Thorns
With 12 goals, Kansas City's Temwa Chawinga tops this year's NWSL Golden Boot race. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

As the NWSL heads into the Olympic break, it's time to take stock of the players currently in contention for individual accolades by season's end.

Only 10 regular season games remain after the league's August 23rd return, despite this season being four games longer than last year's campaign.

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda in action during a NWSL match against Seattle Reign
Orlando's Barbra Banda is a strong NWSL Golden Boot award contender. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The NWSL Golden Boot award comes down to two

The league's Golden Boot frontrunners are well known, with Orlando's Barbra Banda and KC's Temwa Chawinga leading the pack.

At the moment, Chawinga has a slight edge on Banda even though both forwards are tied at 12 goals apiece: Chawinga has registered six assists to Banda's five, giving her the award's first tiebreaker. Banda, however, has racked up her goals in just 12 games, while Chawinga's tally has come over 16 games.

With 10 matches to go, Banda and Chawinga could be on pace to break former Chicago Red Star Sam Kerr's 18-goal single-season record.

NWSL Washington Spirit's Croix Bethune celebrates her stoppage-time equalizer against San Diego Wave FC
Washington's Croix Bethune is in the running for both the Rookie of the Year and NWSL MVP awards (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

NWSL MVP award is still anyone's game

While Banda and Chawinga are certainly shoo-ins for this year's MVP conversation, a few other players also deserve some attention.

Rookie of the Year favorite Coix Bethune leads the league in assists with a staggering nine while sitting tied for seventh in goals scored with five. 

USWNT stars Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith should also be considered, as Rodman's passing and finishing continue to stand out while Smith's performance has resulted in 10 goals and six assists on the season.

NWSL goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger of NJ/NY Gotham FC stops the ball during a game against Bay FC
Late Gotham addition Ann-Katrin Berger might just snag the NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year award. (Karen Hickey/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Plenty of NWSL competition for defensive awards

Orlando and Gotham have the stoutest defenses in the league this year, with both Defender and Goalkeeper of the Year candidates in the mix.

Orlando defender Emily Sams has proven her versatility, playing outside back after entering the league as a center-back while also being called into her first USWNT camp.

Recently signed Gotham goalkeeper Ann-Katrin Berger might be behind in games played, but she's been statistically solid ever since joining the 2023 NWSL champions.

And don't count out two-time reigning Defender of the Year Naomi Girma, who has been consistently excellent even as San Diego's season has wavered.

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