There are many things missing from the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament this year, most notably sold-out stadiums filled with screaming fans. As the tournament was forced to adjust due to the pandemic, it came with its share of sacrifices.
For Avant Garb’s Jennifer Smith, the biggest void in this year’s tourney was left by the mascots who weren’t invited inside the Hoosier bubble. “The cheerleaders and mascots aren’t here, which makes the games a little stark,” she said. “Maybe people are loving it, but I really feel like the cheerleaders and mascots fill it out.”
For a woman who has spent more than three decades crafting iconic mascots for teams and brands across the country, Smith reluctantly admitted that she’s not the biggest sports fan. “I’ve been corrected for calling the uniform a costume,” she said. “If I go to a game, it takes me until about halftime to even turn my attention to the court. I’m just looking at what everybody’s wearing, how they’re interacting. People are just so interesting.”
Smith launched Avant Garb out of her garage in 1986 while living in Berkley, California. Her first mascot was for a small chocolate chip cookie company that no longer exists. Her second job was for Hewlett-Packard, who remains a client nearly 40 years later.
When asked what makes a great mascot, Smith’s answer was simple. “A really great performer makes a great mascot,” she said. “But a performer can become really great by having a great costume—terrific expression, wonderful bodies, really good eyebrows. It’s just a substantial character.”.
Indianapolis: The CapitAl of Mascots
Smith moved Avant Garb to Indianapolis in 1988. With two young kids, she wanted to be closer to her parents who had moved here a few years earlier. She credits the move with much of her success. “We didn’t want to spend all of our money on rent, and we also wanted to be able to find a parking place now and then,” she joked. “Indianapolis was a wonderful place to land.”
“Indiana right now is sort of ground zero for mascots,” Smith said. “There’s the Mascot Hall of Fame. It’s really a little gem if you ever have time. It’s just wonderful. It really promotes the industry, which people don’t really think about. But look at all the mascots around and how important they are—how important, say, Boomer is for the Pacers.”