Vanderbilt football has faced an uphill battle trying to compete in the SEC, with the Commodores having just one winning conference record in the past 41 seasons.
But while on-field success has eluded Vanderbilt in football, the institution continually brings non-football success to the league. And its academic standing is the best in the SEC.
Name, image and likeness appears to be an area where the Commodores could find benefit. In the first 12 months of the NIL era, no Vanderbilt collective was launched. That changed in November with the announcement of Anchor Collective. Another NIL entity has since launched, the Anchor Impact Fund. Run by D’Juan Epps, who was previously Vanderbilt’s associate director of athletic development, the collective has backing from some of the institution’s top donors.
At the time of its release, it received immediate backing from athletic director Candice Lee, baseball coach Tim Corbin and football coach Clark Lea.
“In my previous work, doing a lot of fundraising for Vanderbilt athletics, just naturally you have those relationships,” Epps recently told On3 via phone. “They asked the question about what Vanderbilt was doing in the NIL space. And at that time, we didn’t have any concrete plans around how we were going to utilize name, image and likeness for the good of student-athletes.
“They’re successful businesspeople in the community, as well as community leaders, and having a deep passion for charitable organizations, they did their due diligence on their own, sought legal counsel, engaged with the university and then brought it to me.”
Epps declined to go into specifics on who is backing the fund. The Anchor Impact Fund has secured its 501(c)(3) status and has announced nearly 20 deals. Each athlete who signs a partnership with the fund will be paired with a charitable organization in the Nashville area.
While the organization functions like many collectives across the country, it is making an emphasis to brand itself as a fund. Most of that has to do with the preconceived notions of what Vanderbilt fans have heard about NIL.
“I think this space is still relatively new to our community, where a lot of those conversations start with educating them on what we’re doing and how it’s impacting Vanderbilt student-athletes but how it also differs from what they may be seeing in the media,” Epps said. “We’re an impact-driven organization aiming to distinguish ourselves from our peers with a holistic approach in providing influential resources to our student-athletes within the name, image and likeness space.”
To compete in the SEC’s NIL collective landscape, Vanderbilt will need to stockpile funds. Sources across the nation have indicated to On3 that top-tier NIL collectives will be operating with up to a $5 million annual budget in football.
The Anchor Impact Fund is headed in the right direction. Epps told On3 it has raised $2.1 million. That was kickstarted by a $500,000 matching gift from Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust member John Ingram. The match has since been fulfilled.
Competing in NIL in just one sport is not the objective. The fund wants to provide NIL opportunities to each Vanderbilt athlete. Epps described his job as working with “350 brandable Vanderbilt athletes.”
Epps plans to build out a staff to help manage the day-to-day operations of the fund. He has spent much of his time in the past month on the phone with donors, securing funds and explaining how Vanderbilt fits into college athletics’ new world.
Securing the nonprofit status did make a difference when speaking with some of Vanderbilt’s high-roller boosters. “As our donors are evaluating their philanthropic portfolios, I think that adds value that we can assist them in having a tax-deductible donation,” Epps said.
For the first 20 months of NIL, there has been a theory kicked around that Ivy League institutions could be the most successful in the space if they wanted to be. The thinking follows the thought that the eight schools have some of the richest endowments and alumni networks in the nation. The same thinking goes for Vanderbilt. While Alabama and Georgia may be the SEC’s powers, the Commodores are financially at the top of the conference. The school’s website says it has an endowment of $10.9 billion, trailing only Texas A&M’s $18 billion endowment.
Nashville also is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. And with more than 140,000 in the Vanderbilt alumni network, the Anchor Impact Fund has a strong base to try to engage with Commodores athletics.
“A school’s endowment size provides a basis for an expectation of a certain willingness to spend money on the potential success of a program, so I see it as a reasonable factor for making the assumption that a donor-funded NIL collective should thrive,” said attorney Darren Heitner, who has consulted with collectives and athletes in the first 20 months of NIL. “Vanderbilt is a school that is in a prime position to benefit from NIL collective-related activity, given this fact.”
Vanderbilt won the College Baseball World Series in 2019; it finished as runner-up in 2021. The women’s basketball program has appeared in 20 NCAA tournaments (third-most in the SEC) and made 12 Sweet 16 appearances. The women’s tennis team has won a national title; so, too, has women’s bowling. Jerry Stackhouse’s men’s basketball team knocked off No. 23 Kentucky earlier this week. The Commodores are not going to make the NCAA tournament this season but they have done so nine times, with four Sweet 16 appearances.
Winning on the football field is the long-term play. Sure, the fund wants the focus to remain on all Vanderbilt athletes. That does not mean Epps and the donors behind the collective won’t spend a bit more time fundraising for football.
Across college athletics, NIL has turned into pay-for-play. That’s not what NIL was meant to be. But while the NCAA pleads for Congress to help, collectives and schools continue to play in the gray area.
That’s something Epps and the Anchor Impact Fund is grappling with. He said the collective will operate “at the highest of standards.” But he is also trying to close the gap between Vanderbilt and the rest of the SEC. While he chose not to go into specifics, he said the collective is compensating athletes at a high level.
“We’re creating meaningful opportunities for our student-athletes to raise awareness and market these charities,” Epps said. “ … We don’t want to ever jeopardize the eligibility of our student-athletes, as well as our programs. And so like I said, with Vanderbilt and making this transition, we’re going to do everything in our power to remain above the standard.”