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Episode Transcript

Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. As we like to remind you now and again, Freakonomics Radio is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network. The other shows in our network are No Stupid Questions, People I (Mostly) Admire, and our latest addition The Economics of Everyday Things. It is a short, weekly show about the everyday things that often go unnoticed, and unexplained, even though they deserve better. The special episode that you’re about to hear gathers up three of these short pieces so that you can hear just how good and fun the show is — and then go to your podcast app and follow the show. Because what I’d really like you to do is to make The Economics of Everyday Things a regular part of your podcast diet along with Freakonomics Radio. Again, just search for “The Economics of Everyday Things” in your podcast app and start listening to every episode. Thanks in advance.

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When you go to a baseball game, there are a few things you can count on. You’ll hear the vendors hollering over the din of the crowd.

VENDOR: Crackerjack!

You’ll smell the peanuts, the hot dogs, the ludicrously overpriced beers.

VENDOR: Peanuts!

And, if you’re at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, you’ll see a six-and-a-half-foot-tall fuzzy, green beast, waddling across the field in search of trouble. Even if you’re not a sports fan, you’ve probably heard of the Phillie Phanatic. Sports Illustrated called him the best mascot in history. He has sold millions of dollars worth of merchandise, and he brings families to the ballpark at a time when fewer people are going to baseball games. How exactly does he do that? Well, it has a lot to do with the guy who originally wore the costume.

David RAYMOND: I could throw, I could catch, I could do cartwheels — not a lot of gymnastics, but I could dance, I could move really well. I kind of fancied myself as being the secret weapon.

This is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Let’s talk about sports mascots.

The “secret weapon” you just heard from — that’s Dave Raymond. His story starts back in the late 1970s. As a sophomore in college, he landed a summer internship with the Phillies.

RAYMOND: I was in the promotions office and my dad had said, “Look, when you get this job, you do whatever they ask you to do. Don’t say no to anything.” So I was stocking shelves, I was cleaning bathrooms in the executive offices, and then I might be taking the national anthem singer to dinner. But that all changed in the Spring of ‘78.

At the time, the Phillies had a problem on their hands: attendance wasn’t too hot. And the promotions department was trying to get more butts in the seats. On the other side of the country, someone had an intriguing solution.

ANNOUNCER: More chickening around here as we go to the bottom of the sixth inning. The famous San Diego Chicken changing dancing partners here.

Out in California, a 20-year-old kid named Ted Giannoulas was making waves at San Diego Padres games by dressing up as a chicken and cavorting around the field.

RAYMOND: The chicken kind of had a raunchy routine. He actually chugged beer through his beak. This chicken character is just out of his mind. And people are actually coming to the game because they’re hearing about him.

Professional sports mascots were not a new idea. The Phillies even had their own — Philadelphia Phil and Philadelphia Phyllis, a pair of twins in Revolutionary War outfits. But they weren’t designed to entertain.

RAYMOND: They were like walking logos or symbols. The performer would wear these big heavy body suits made out of some pieces of wood. They had no mobility.

The Phillies saw the impact that this chicken was having in San Diego, and they decided to up their mascot game with a new character. So they went straight to the best people in the business.

Bonnie ERICKSON: My name is Bonnie Erickson, and I was the designer of the Phillie Phanatic.

Erickson had been a part of the original design team for The Muppet Show. Let’s just say, you’ve seen her work.

ERICKSON: The two old men, Statler and Waldorf. I also did George the Janitor. Probably the most famous is Miss Piggy.

She had just started a character-design firm with her husband, Wayde Harrison. And the Phillies wanted some of that Muppet mojo.

ERICKSON: The rationale the Phillies gave us was they needed to encourage younger people to become baseball fans. I’d watched baseball games, but I certainly didn’t know that much about the whole process. So, one of the first things we did was go down to Philly, and ask them about their audience.

CROCKETT: And what did you find out?

ERICKSON: Well, we heard a lot about the fans. We heard that they booed Santa Claus, so that was pretty daunting.

Erickson mocked up some sketches of a curious creature. With a megaphone snout and a pear-shaped body, the Phanatic was designed to be on the move.

RAYMOND: He’s a green bird from the Galapagos Islands. He’s 300 plus pounds, depending on what day of the week you weigh him.

ERICKSON: I wanted something that would be funny if you just watched it walk. Mascots are non-speaking characters. They have to transfer everything that they want to say through their body motion. That’s why the fanatic has feather eyebrows, feather tail — things that are showing some action.

When Erickson sold the character to the Phillies, she gave them a choice: they could buy the costume and the copyright to the character for 5,200 bucks, or they could buy just the costume for $3,900. Phillies executive Bill Giles chose the latter. So, once you have a bespoke mascot costume, how do you find the right performer to bring it to life? Well, if you’re the Philadelphia Phillies, you ask the guy in the office who never says no to anything: Dave Raymond.

RAYMOND: I get a phone call. They said, “You need to go to New York right away and get fitted for the costume.” I went to West 39th Street. I walked into Geppeto’s puppet studio. There were disembodied arms and foam and eyeballs. And I just went, “Oh my gosh, I’m getting paid to be a Muppet!”

The Phanatic made its debut on April 25, 1978; the Phillies beat the Chicago Cubs 7-0. Maybe it was the win or the ballpark beer, but the fans loved him from the start. That first year alone, the Phillies sold Phanatic plush toys, T-shirts, pins, coloring books. And the mascot was making the team money from appearances off the field, too.

RAYMOND: A lot of car dealerships wanted me. At least for the next three years there were just enormous crowds at all of the local events.

Raymond says he was paid a pretty decent base salary for this work. And Bonnie Erickson? Well, she was paid, too. Remember, the Phillies had bought the costume, but not the rights to the character. Which meant Erickson got a hefty cut of the merchandising sales.

ERICKSON: I think the first year of merchandising, we did over $2 million. 

Bill Giles, the Phillies executive who passed on the Phanatic copyright — he later called it the worst decision of his career. A few years later, the team bought the character from Erickson for $215,000 — that’s about $650,000 in today’s money. For Erickson, the Phanatic was the start of a very successful career in the mascot world.

ERICKSON: It’s a small group of people who own these baseball teams. So word gets around pretty fast. And once this was out, it spread beyond baseball.

She and Harrison went on to design more than a dozen other mascots across the major sports leagues: Youppi! for the Montreal Expos, Big Shot for the Philadelphia 76ers, Stuff the Magic Dragon for the Orlando Magic, K.C. Wolf for the Kansas City Chiefs. Around half of their characters are still active today. But, not every team is suited for a mascot.

In 1979, the Yankees commissioned Erickson to make one — he was a bulbous pinstriped fellow named Dandy. According to Bonnie Erickson’s partner Wayde Harrison, Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner hated Dandy so much that he was sentenced to roam the nosebleed seats.

Wayde HARRISON: They didn’t allow him lower than the second deck. He had a security guard with him because that could be a rough area sometimes. The performer came to us and said his mother would not allow him to do that anymore because they were going to take away the security guard. So we did not renew the lease.

Erickson and Harrison eventually got out of the mascot business in the ‘90s. And after 16 years performing as the Phanatic, Dave Raymond moved on, too. He passed the duties to his backup performer, and started his own mascot firm. Since then, Raymond has created more than 130 mascots from scratch — mostly for minor-league and college teams. His biggest success came a few years ago, when he was hired by the Philadelphia Flyers pro hockey team. The result was Gritty, a 7-foot-tall orange brute with bulging eyes and a maniacal grin. One reporter described him as a nightmarish frat boy on an acid trip. Raymond was undeterred.

RAYMOND: Overcome the negativity because there will always be negativity there. I mean, that’s what I told the Flyers to expect — I told them to expect six months! It took like three days for it to change. 

Philadelphia — the city that once booed Santa Claus — embraced Gritty with open arms. In his first month alone, the character got the Flyers around $160 million dollars’ worth of media exposure. That makes the cost of a modern mascot sound downright reasonable. Raymond says the creative process of designing a character like Gritty might set a team back between $80,000 and $300,000 — that’s the base fee he charges. Then, there’s ongoing work: creating duplicate costumes, taking care of repairs, and — perhaps most importantly — regular cleanings.

RAYMOND: You want to try to to make sure that the body odor does not get, baked into the costume. You mix one part vodka with two parts water. And at the end of every appearance, you spray the inside of the costume to kill the bacteria. The joke was, ‘Two for the costume, one for the performer.”

But Raymond’s core business is the thing he knows best. He is a bona fide mascot headhunter. Every year, he runs a mascot boot camp, where aspiring performers learn the tricks of the trade.

RAYMOND: A performer needs to have a full bio to work from. What motivates this character? What is this character scared to death of? What will this character always do? What would this character never do? And then you give them all that backstory and you say, “Go have fun.”

It’s not exactly that simple, though. For starters, you can’t be claustrophobic. You can’t be afraid of a little sweat. You need to be pretty physically fit. And, of course —

RAYMOND: You have to have either a natural ability, or a trained ability to communicate non-verbally, through movement and dance. The ones that are going to be ultimately a high level of success, you see that right away.

The chosen few that make it to the big leagues can do pretty well. Raymond says the N.B.A. pays most mascots a starting salary of $85- to $100,000. There’s also incentive pay. According to the Sports Business Journal, mascots at the very top of the food chain — like the Denver Nuggets’ Rocky the Mountain Lion — can earn more than $600,000 per year. But those superstar wages are few and far between.

RAYMOND: It’s a minor fraction of 1 percent of the environment that gets those jobs. And there are many minor league characters toiling away for $50-100 a game, and doing great work.

In his trainings, Raymond emphasizes good, clean, safe fun. It’s to keep the crowds, owners and sponsors happy, but also to ward off the threat of litigation. The same boisterous spirit that made the Phanatic an icon also got him in trouble. The Phillies have been sued at least six times over the years for Phanatic misbehavior, including hugging a fan too hard, accidentally kicking a pregnant woman, and shooting a fan in the face with a hot dog gun. Settlements have set the Phillies back nearly $3 million. And there’s one last thing that teams have to watch out for, when they buy a mascot.

ERICKSON: The copyright law says that after 35 years, if something is still viable, the original copyright owners have the opportunity to renegotiate. 

That 35-year clock recently expired on the Phanatic, and Bonnie Erickson came knocking. She and the team settled out of court.

ERICKSON: The Phillie Phanatic is still very dear to my heart.

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Take a trip to the Gobi desert region of southern Mongolia, and you’ll see vast expanses of open land.

Myagmarjav SERJKHUU: Endless! It’s endless open space.

That’s Myagmarjav Serjkhuu — Myga for short. She spoke to us from Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar.

SERJKHUU: You can see sunset — it’s just like you’re watching sunset in the ocean. You can see the sand dunes and the camels! Birds!

You can see something else, too: Goats. Lots and lots of goats.

The country is home to around 27 million of them. They outnumber people eight to one. These goats are critically important to the Mongolian economy — and to the apparel industry. That’s because, once a year, they produce a substantial share of the world’s cashmere.

SERJKHUU: When you touch it, it’s very soft. Some people say it’s like a baby butt.

It used to be that you could only find cashmere in high-end clothes, like a $2,000 Loro Piana turtleneck. Today, it’s everywhere. Direct-to-consumer companies like Quince and Everlane sell $60 cashmere sweaters by the truckload. That’s good news for the folks in Mongolia who make a living raising goats.

SERJKHUU: Cashmere is a primary income source for herders, also an important pillar of the country’s economy.

But, it has come at a cost. This is The Economics of Everyday Things. Now: cashmere.

If you are a goat in Central Asia, every winter, you grow a second coat of hair underneath your outer coat. It’s soft, it’s fluffy, and it’s around six times finer than human hair. This wool is called cashmere.

Carolyn YIM: The softest is on the belly and the little areas under the arms and the chin.

Carolyn Yim runs Ply-Knits, a boutique knitwear company based in New York and Hong Kong. Her family has been in the textile business for three generations.

YIM: I think the reason it’s so prized is because it’s beyond a functional product. It is a good that is associated with luxury and an elevated sense of style.

That association, she says, started back in the 1960s.

YIM: I would say a lot of the association is with old-money cashmere, like the cashmeres worn at Ivy Leagues and the cashmere sweaters with cigarette burns into it. And then in the 2000s there was a lot more democratized cashmere, that started to happen And that’s when we really started to see that everyone wanted a cashmere sweater.

These days, around 40 to 50 million pounds of raw cashmere are harvested each year, all over the world — in Afghanistan, Tibet, Iran, Australia, New Zealand. But most of the world’s supply comes from just two countries: China makes up 50 percent of the market, and Mongolia controls another 40 percent. In Mongolia, where Myga lives, herding was once a collectivist enterprise. But when the country’s communist system was replaced by a democracy in 1990, the goat herds were privatized, and families flooded into the herding business. Today, herding cashmere goats is Mongolia’s largest profession.

SERJKHUU: We have over 3 million population, and one-third of the population are herders.

Myga manages the Mongolian Sustainable Cashmere Platform for the United Nations. In short, she spends a lot of time working with the country’s nomadic herders, who migrate across vast distances in search of food for their goats.

SERJKHUU: They are land-connected people. They love their animals and livestock. They also love their nature. Early in the morning, they herd the animals, and take them out to the pasture. They move a lot. They always go seeking for better pasture for their animals.

The cashmere is harvested with metal combs every spring, and weighed out in grams — that’s the standard used for international trade. On average, a goat might produce 250 grams of raw cashmere each year. The price that it fetches is governed by its color and its quality. But in general, Myga says one goat might yield around $10 worth of cashmere. That means that it takes a herd of 500 goats to earn Mongolia’s median household income of $5,000. Most herders breed new goats to ensure they have a sustainable cashmere business each season.

SERJKHUU: Springtime, they collect the cashmere. Then when it comes to slaughter season in November or early December, they slaughter the animal and sell the meat to the market.

Mongolia has seen tremendous inflation over the past 30 years. An item that cost the equivalent of a dollar in 1993 costs around $95 today. So, even with supplemental income, it’s hard to make ends meet.

SERJKHUU: Economic return is not sufficient enough to cover their financial demands. Herder family, for instance, have five children, four of them gone to the school. And the herders have to pay all that expenses in the capital city, which is now very expensive.

In theory, herders could make more money if they sold their cashmere directly to processing mills. But their options are limited by Mongolia’s geography.

SERJKHUU: It’s a vast country. You can imagine how much effort needs to be to collect all the raw material.

Traders from China travel through the far reaches of Mongolia on motorbikes, collecting bags of cashmere from herders. These middlemen clean the cashmere and sell it to mills for around $100 per kilogram — more than twice what they paid for it. A portion of this raw cashmere stays in Mongolia, where it’s knitted into goods by local companies. The bulk of it leaves the country. Myga wishes Mongolians could keep more of that production at home.

SERJKHUU: Mongolia doesn’t fully benefit from the cashmere industry because of this insufficient processing capacity in the country. 

Some higher-end brands like Loro Piana export the material to Italy, where it’s knitted in local factories. But 80 percent of Mongolian cashmere ends up in China, where full-scale milling operations turn it into yarn. It goes through a process called carding, which draws the fibers out into strands.

YIM: It’s really nice and fluffy. It is like a really, really long Santa’s beard.

Carolyn Yim, the third-generation knitter, has visited the factories in China many times.

YIM: This then is taken into the spinning machine, where the hair is twisted in two ways, kind of like a DNA structure, until it becomes a really long yarn that is finally then put onto the cone and becomes usable for knitting.

By the end of this process, the cashmere is about 50 percent smaller. So, it can take a lot of goats to make a single article of clothing.

YIM: At the end of the production cycle, each sweater takes about one pound of yarn. If you’re just measuring grams, it’s about five or six goats for one sweater.

Yim’s company, Ply-Knits, uses this yarn to produce all kinds of cashmere goods — cardigans, leggings, shirts — most of which cost a few hundred dollars apiece. But not all cashmere is created equal. The gold standard is pure white, with strands that are 14 microns wide and 36 millimeters long. And buyers like Yim have to develop a sixth sense for sniffing it out.

YIM: I think over time, my sensitivity with my hands has really grown. It’s sort of like being a perfumer with a nose. A really good cashmere sweater will feel peachy or creamy, plush. Whereas a bad cashmere sweater is dry, cardboard-y, papery, thin.

Cashmere goods were once a luxury, produced in small batches and priced out-of-reach for most consumers. But in recent years, cashmere has entered an era of mass production. A new crop of companies sells 100 percent cashmere sweaters for well below $100 — supposedly by buying the material directly from herders, and cutting out the middleman. But Yim says some brands keep prices down by using less material, or by making their sweaters from lower-quality fibers.

YIM: You’re taking not just the hair from the belly. You’re taking areas that you wouldn’t have before, to make up for that demand. And then using methodology afterwards, such as different ways of bleaching. I think this is happening a lot now, even with high-end brands. The luxury cashmere sweater today is not the same as what it was 20 years ago.

Mongolia has responded to this boom in demand by cranking up cashmere production. Since 1990, the country’s goat population has grown from 5 million to 27 million. That’s had an impact on the landscape. Goats consume up to 11 percent of their body weight in grass, shrubs, and weeds every day. They eat close to the roots, preventing plants from regrowing; their sharp hooves damage topsoil. Scientists have found that overgrazing has contributed to the degradation of 70 percent of Mongolia’s grasslands. Myga says Mongolian officials have attempted a number of things to combat these issues, including livestock taxes to fund re-vegetation.

SERJKHUU: They know that the land is foundation for everything — their livelihood and their animals. They are not stupid. They are willing to pay that money, and they realize the issues. 

In Northern China, measures have been more drastic. Most herding operations have been confined to farms.

​​YIM: In recent years, the Chinese government has a very particular approach to how the flocks can live. The goats are in corrals, so they are not roaming around free.

And the region faces an even graver threat: climate change. Most of Mongolia’s landscape is made up of drylands that are prone to becoming deserts. Temperatures are up. Rainfall is down. And factories that produce cashmere garments are under pressure to adapt to new sustainability standards. Environmental permits can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even the most diligent operations are struggling to comply.

YIM: I do not have the hubris to claim I have 100 percent sustainability, because it’s completely impossible.

Together, increased demand, overgrazing, and climate change mean that cashmere is getting worse.

YIM: I’m unable to find the quality that we had 20 years ago. In Inner Mongolia, the cashmere fiber width has been steadily increasing. And that’s not a good thing. You can’t just increase yield of goat hair so quickly to meet up with demand.

These are prickly issues for something as soft as a baby’s butt. But for Mongolians like Myga, the stakes of solving these problems are high. Because cashmere is more than a material used to make really soft sweaters. It’s a part of the country’s identity.

SERJKHUU: This nomadic way of herding practice has been in the country hundreds, hundreds of years. The international demand is going up. The country has to control in terms of impact — environmental impact, social impact, and also economic impact — for that commodity. That’s a lot of challenges. 

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In October of 2020, there was a hotly anticipated auction at Christie’s in New York City. It included paintings from some of history’s most venerated artists — Picasso, Rothko, Cézanne. But the lot that fetched the highest price was not a painting.

AUCTIONEER: Lot number 59 Really?! Uh, twenty sev—

BIDDER: Yes, really. 27.1, please.

AUCTIONEER: We’re all waiting with bated breath. $27 million, one-hundred thousand dollars.

BIDDER: 27.5, please.

AUCTIONEER: We’ve come this far okay 27 million, 500 thousand dollars. Fair warning, I’m happy to sell this and sold! Thank you very much!

The object on the block? A Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton named “Stan.” With fees, it went for just under $32 million — more than 5 times its minimum estimated sale price. For the man who helped discover Stan, it was validation of a job well done.

Peter LARSON: Stan was 25,000 person hours. That’s a lot of work and somebody has to pay for that.

This is The Economics of Everyday Things. We’re looking at T. rex Skeletons.

You’ve probably seen a T. rex — or, at least, part of one — at a natural history museum. So how did it get there? Well, if you want to find one in the ground, your best bet is to head to the Hell Creek Formation, a stretch of rock that runs through Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. It dates back to the Cretaceous age, which ended around 66 million years ago. The first documented T. rex discovery was made in the Hell Creek Formation in 1902. And nearly all of the T. rex excavated since then — that’s around 140 of them — were also found there. A lot of that land is publicly owned. And, here in the United States, fossils on public land are protected by law — you need permission from the Bureau of Land Management to conduct searches. In most cases, you also have to be a credentialed scientist. Someone like this guy.

Thomas CARR: Thomas Carr, Ph.D. I study the growth and evolution of Tyrannosaurus rex and its closest relatives. 

Carr is a paleontology professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin. He’s one of the country’s foremost experts on Tyrannosaurus rex. And he is not in it for the money.

CARR: The purpose of collecting fossils on public land is to collect them for science and education. At no point is contact made with the market. It would just defeat the purpose entirely.

When you find fossils on public land, you’re not allowed to sell them.

CARR: Once they’re out of the ground, they have to go into a public trust. At the end of each year, we are responsible for submitting a field report which includes a catalog of all the fossils that we found.

But a fossil found on private land — that’s a different story.

CARR: It’s really a free-for-all on private land. If a person finds a dinosaur, they can do whatever they want with it.

That includes selling it on the open market. At annual gatherings like the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, you’ll find dozens of fossil hunters selling things like Spinosaurus teeth and bone fragments of Triceratops. If you ask around, it won’t be long before you come across this guy.

LARSON: My name is Peter Larson. I’m president of Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, South Dakota — the place where museums go to shop for such strange things as dinosaur skeletons.

Larson started out in the ’70s, selling small fossils at trade shows. One day, that all changed.

LARSON: We were approached by a museum that said, “Can you get us a dinosaur skeleton?” And although I’d never found a dinosaur skeleton, I said, “Sure, of course we can.”

He ended up finding that dinosaur. And then he found a hell of a lot more of them. Specifically, T. rex skeletons.

LARSON: We’ve collected now, I think, we’re at number 13? That’s quite a few.

When Larson wants to go look for dinosaur bones, the first thing he has to do is get permission to conduct a search on private land. This involves cutting the ranch owner in on any future discoveries.

LARSON: We come up with a value based upon market prices at the time. That can be anywhere from 10 percent of something that’s hard to sell, to as much as 50 percent if you’ve got a nice T. rex skeleton on your ground.

Fossil scouting isn’t as romantic as it sounds. Larson walks around for months over craggy terrain, his eye trained to the ground for the faintest bone fragments. Many times, he won’t find anything at all. When he does find evidence of a skeleton, he begins a lengthy and extremely intensive excavation process. From start to finish, getting a dinosaur fossil out of the ground and into a buyer’s hands can take two to three years.

LARSON: Let’s say it’s a T. rex skeleton— it’s a 40-foot-long skeleton. You’re going to have an investment of in excess of $1,000,000 to get that ready for exhibit.

Larson will strike a deal with a potential buyer before the fossil is removed. So, he has to approximate his overhead costs in advance.

LARSON: Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. We’ve done projects where we’ve actually lost money on them, just because we underestimated the amount of time it was going to take.

When everything goes smoothly, he nets a profit of around 20 percent of the sale price of the skeleton. Now, what a fossil commands on the market depends on a few factors: its size, its condition, and — most importantly — its completeness. There are around 380 bones in a T. rex skeleton. No one has ever found a fully intact specimen. But Larson came close. On a scorching summer day in 1990, just outside the city of Faith, South Dakota, Larson and his team uncovered the most complete T. rex skeleton in history — 90 percent by bone volume. They named it Sue. Sue came with some drama. After the excavation, it came out that the fossil had actually been found on land that was part of the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Federal agents seized it and a legal battle broke out. In the end, the landowner — a man named Maurice Williams who was a member of the Sioux tribe — was awarded full ownership. And he took the dinosaur straight to auction.

LARSON: Up to that point, no fossil had been sold for $1,000,000. All of a sudden, it went to 2 million to 3 million to 4 million to 5 million, 7 million.

Sue sold for around $8.4 million to the Field Museum in Chicago, with financing from corporate sponsors like McDonald’s and the Walt Disney Company. It was the start of a new age in the market for dinosaur fossils.

LARSON: Everybody said, “Huh! These fossils could be worth a lot of money.” It brought a number of what I call dinosaur dreamers into the business.

Clayton PHIPPS: I’m Clayton Phipps. And some folks call me The Dinosaur Cowboy. Before I became a fossil hunter, I really was a cowboy. That’s all I’d ever really done.

Phipps grew up on a ranch in remote Montana. His family were homesteaders, going back generations, scraping a living off the land. But around the time Sue was discovered, he realized he might be sitting on a gold mine.

PHIPPS: A kid came by and asked if he could look for fossils. And it was right after the movie Jurassic Park came out. The dinosaur craze was high. It just really piqued my interest. And I started spending every free minute I had learning what I could about dinosaurs.

In 2003, he nabbed his first big find: the skull of a Stygimoloch, a rare horned dinosaur that roamed the North American plains around 70 million years ago.

PHIPPS: I ended up selling that. It gave me about a year’s wages, as to what I was making as a cowboy, to see if I could maybe quit my job and make fossil-hunting more of a way to earn a living for my family. And I had to go out and find something, or we didn’t get to buy groceries.

A few years later, on a neighboring ranch, Phipps stumbled across the discovery of a lifetime: the remains of a young T. rex — and a Triceratops — entangled in, what is thought to be, a deadly brawl. Which raised a question: How, exactly, does an amateur paleontologist get a 20-ton fossil out of the ground?

PHIPPS: There were no YouTube videos out there on how to do it at that time, so we started out with some rancher ingenuity. 

Phipps dug around the massive fossil, slipped a pallet underneath it, and dragged it down the road with a tractor trailer. While the excavation method was less than scientific, the fossil itself was one-of-a-kind. But in the dinosaur market, even the best fossils can be hard to sell. And that’s because finding a buyer can be almost as hard as finding a dinosaur.

PHIPPS: We went to most of the major museums in the U.S. and some overseas museums, and tried to get somebody interested. And, you know, it kept me broke for years.

Phipps spent nearly two decades trying to sell his prized fossil. In 2020, he finally secured a buyer. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences bought it for $6 million. After paying off the land owner and accounting for expenses, Phipps says the deal didn’t make him as rich as he’d hoped.

PHIPPS: If I had a dollar for every step I’ve ever taken looking for a dinosaur — or even probably a dime — I may be better off. Now, I’m back to, “Yup, let’s find another one!”

Peter Larson, our other fossil hunter, knows better than anyone that a big sale doesn’t always result in a big payday. Remember Stan, the dinosaur that fetched 31.8 million dollars at Christie’s? It ended up in Abu Dhabi, where it will be the star of a new museum in a few years. Larson didn’t see a penny from that sale. In the years leading up to the auction, he had a dispute with his brother over the ownership of their company. They agreed on an unorthodox settlement: his brother got Stan’s bones; he kept the firm. But, he did get to keep the intellectual-property rights to Stan.

LARSON: No two people prepare a bone the same. And there’s the artistry where you reconstruct, where you’re putting the pieces back together, where you’re creating the parts that are missing, it’s all art. And so we have a registered copyright, and we trademarked the name Stan.

Larson’s company now makes extremely accurate plastic casts of Stan, right down to the serrations in the teeth. Those casts have become his bread and butter.

LARSON: A Stan full-mounted cast sells for $120,000. And then that’s plus whatever shipping and crating that would have to go with that.

CROCKETT: That’s a bargain compared to $32 million.

LARSON: Yeah, that’s right. Not everyone can afford a cast of Stan, but a lot more people can than afford an original Stan skeleton.

Larson says he has sold around 100 casts to museums all over the world. There are Stans in Washington D.C., Korea, Japan, India —

LARSON: — France, Spain, Germany, England. There are Stans all over the place.

There are even a few Stans floating around in private homes. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has a plastic Stan skull in his home office. It set him back around 12,000 bucks. And, if you take a boat down Lake Washington in Seattle and you peer into the glass atrium of one of those waterfront mansions, you might catch a glimpse of a full-scale Stan skeleton.

Nathan MYHRVOLD: People will say, “Well, how much did your cast cost?” Like they want to see how much money I blew on that. And I said, look, the truth of it is if you build a living room big enough to hold the dinosaur, that cost you way more than the dinosaur.

That’s Nathan Myhrvold. He was the first C.T.O. at Microsoft, he’s the founder of a private equity firm called Intellectual Ventures. And he’s also very into dinosaurs.

MYHRVOLD: Oh, yeah. I’ve got — so Archaeopteryx is a very famous fossil. I have a megalodon jaw. I have an ancient fish called xiphactinus, which is a fish that used to live in the inland sea.

But Myhrvold isn’t just a collector of fossils. He has accompanied paleontologists on digs. He’s written a number of peer-reviewed papers, including one on dinosaur vomit. And he’s played a critical role in funding scientific expeditions, which are chronically under-resourced.

MYHRVOLD: A huge amount of paleontology — it’s people spending $20,000 a year to take a few of their students on a camping trip for a couple of weeks in one place. One of the bigger line items: renting porta-potties for the campground.

For the past two decades, Myhrvold has granted around $500,000 per year to paleontologists. Those grants have resulted in at least ten T. rex discoveries — all on public land, for academic research. It’s an effort to level the playing field for scientists, who simply can’t compete with the budgets of commercial fossil hunters. Thomas Carr, the paleontology professor in Wisconsin, says that the commercial market for dinosaurs has had a devastating impact on scientific research. He and many other paleontologists adhere to a code of ethics established by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. That code says they can only study fossils in the public trust. Anything sold on the open market is strictly off-limits.

And that’s a problem. Because, to date, more than 60 percent of all known T. rex fossils have been found by commercial fossil hunters.

CARR: It took only 33 years for the commercial folks to collect more T. rexes than the public trust collected in 130 years. It’s an existential threat: our natural heritage is just being auctioned off for top dollar. And that’s a problem for science, because to really understand nature, particularly organisms, we have to have a high sample size.

This problem is not exclusive to T. rex fossils.

CARR: Triceratops shows up on the market. Duckbill Dinosaurs. In the past year, a very rare example of a bird-like dinosaur called Dynonacus was auctioned to a private individual. And Dynonacus is known from very few specimens, like there’s only six or seven good ones. It’s gone — and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Commercial fossil hunters like Larson see it differently. They often argue that exposed fossils will eventually succumb to the elements.

LARSON: The scientists should be happy that these other fossils are being saved, because you cannot leave a fossil in the ground and expect it to survive. I cannot fault someone for capitalizing an asset that they might have. And especially farmers and ranchers — they need to be paid for these things!

Last summer, after many fruitless searches, paleontologist Thomas Carr finally found something that had been eluding him for years: bone fragments from a rare juvenile T. rex. They may not be worth $32 million dollars — but the real value, he says, is what they can teach us about the inhabitants of the Cretaceous era. He hopes to return next year to look for a full skeleton. That is, unless someone else gets there first.

*      *      *

This special episode of The Economics of Everyday Things was produced by Sarah Lilley, with help from Lyric Bowditch, and mixed by Jeremy Johnston and Greg Rippin. Special thanks to Ryan Kailath and Patrick Mcnameeking. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Daria Klenert, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Jasmin Klinger, Julie Kanfer, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, and Zack Lapinski.

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  • Thomas Carr, director of the Carthage Institute of Paleontology and professor of biology at Carthage College.
  • Bonnie Erickson, puppet and mascot designer; co-founder of Harrison/Erickson, Inc.
  • Wayde Harrison, co-founder and president of Harrison/Erickson, Inc.
  • Peter Larson, president of Black Hills Institute of Geological Research.
  • Nathan Myhrvold, founder of Intellectual Ventures.
  • Clayton Phipps, fossil hunter and former cowboy.
  • Dave Raymond, founder and emperor of fun at Raymond Entertainment; original inhabitor of the Phillie Phanatic mascot.
  • Myagmarjav Serjkhuu, manager of the Mongolian Sustainable Cashmere Platform for the United Nations Development Programme.
  • Carolyn Yim, designer and owner of Ply-Knits.


Sports Mascots:


T. rex Skeletons:


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