Because I have spent many years as a university professor, people sometimes ask me how students of today are different than those from previous generations. This is an easy question to answer: as a cohort, their attention spans are much shorter and the trend has been accelerating over the last decade…in conjunction with the explosion of affordable information and communications technologies.

Colleges and universities retain professionally educated staff whose job it is to assist students with learning disabilities like Dyslexia and also with test anxiety. These kinds of issues have been commonplace for years. Only in the last decade have I seen and heard of so many students diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). In layman’s terms, this is basically a problem of having trouble focusing or concentrating for long. In earlier times, educators and others called it a wandering mind. The pharmaceutical industry offers drugs for its treatment.

In my university career I have been a professor, an associate dean, a department head, and a committee member evaluating professors for promotion and retention. Consequently, I have read countless student teaching evaluations of instructors. Compared to a decade or two ago, the word “boring” or a close equivalent crops up much more frequently to describe a classroom experience. Many contemporary students expect to be entertained, which, of course, is not the same as learning. Ipso facto, by the nature of the coursework, professors teaching the most intellectually challenging material and majors are disadvantaged in this regard, as compared to someone conveying less rigorous subjects.

(The “boredom factor” has evidently carried over to the workplace. The Conference Board has been doing surveys of Americans’ job satisfaction for 22 years. The most recent survey results were reported in January 2010 and revealed the lowest level of satisfaction ever, 45 percent. The recession no doubt is a major cause but one of the leading specific reasons was that more workers find their jobs to be  uninteresting.)

No doubt students’ generally shortened attention spans and expectations for classroom entertainment have been caused to a large degree by technologies that are available to them that were not around for their parents and grandparents. Mass access to cell phones, computers, email, text messaging, Twitter, Facebook and the like have created a frenetic pace of life and instantaneous feedback.

Often, digital communications technologies are a negative for cultivating strong interpersonal skills. An AT&T survey of 1,000 people between the ages of 18 and 35 found that three out of four flirt by text messaging. I have read or heard of people at their workplace using text messaging to contact someone in the next office or carrel, rather than walking a short distance to talk face-to-face. I have witnessed people text messaging at an orchestra performance.

Moreover, if people talking on cell phones while driving cars is a hazard, text messaging has to be much worse. In fact, messaging has been the culprit in numerous auto accidents and the deadliest train crash in the United States in 15 years.

Little wonder that the arts are having a difficult time these days drawing a younger audience, who are accustomed to entertainment that is faster paced. Symphony orchestras, ballets, operas, and art museums are fighting an uphill battle to attract young men and women.

Even the most cerebral of cerebrals, Sherlock Holmes, has been brought into the digital age. The recent Sherlock Holmes film with Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson is more about high-tech visual effects than it is about how a cool and calculating detective scientifically analyzes the clues and follows the trail of his quarry. Holmes purists would not recognize the macho Holmes and the non-bungling Watson. The pyrotechnics and action-filled narrative worked, as the movie was a hit at the box office.

All of this also has serious implications for the old-time sport of horse racing. If racing is to make inroads with the younger generation, it will have to continue to adapt the sport to the contemporary lifestyle, as with remote wagering. On the one hand, a certain segment of the young will be attracted to horse racing by the intellectual challenge of handicapping, just as people in generations before have been intrigued by the intricacies of figuring out who is going to win. But that won’t deliver enough fans to keep horse racing at a critical mass into the future. To survive, tracks will have to develop pari-mutuel products that do not require a detailed knowledge of handicapping and not much of a time commitment. Racetrack offerings will have to extend beyond the core pari-mutuel product. In short, the whole experience will have to be more compelling.

The communications and information technologies that the young take for granted are a potentially huge positive for pari-mutuel purveyors. Betting has never been easier and, in addition, social networking can be employed to generate interest in the sport of horse racing.

Whether horse racing is around as a significant sport/business 20 years hence depends on how adept racing executives prove to be in crafting an attractive value proposition for people who have a plethora of entertainment options to choose from and a lower threshold for boredom than generations past.

I recognize that my concerns could be wrong…that the youth of today will change as they age and begin to act like middle-aged and senior adults of today and the past. But I wouldn’t bet racing’s future on that happening.

Copyright © 2010 Horse Racing Business


  1. Excellent piece Mr. S!

  2. Mr. Shanklin wrote:

    On the one hand, a certain segment of the young will be attracted to horse racing by the intellectual challenge of handicapping, just as people in generations before have been intrigued by the intricacies of figuring out who is going to win.

    But that won’t deliver enough fans to keep horse racing at a critical mass into the future.


    For years I have stated that slowly but surely new fans are passing through the turnstiles at the local racetracks and simulcast facilities, but given their lack of horse racing education and the usurious parimutuel takeout rates they battle against, these newbies do not stand a chance at surviving with their limited bankrolls.

    So, too quickly these ‘new fans’ are taken out of circulation before they get they “get the hang of it”. This was not the case in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, the heyday of thoroughbred racing.

    I am specifically talking about the 20-ish college aged crowd that find themselves attending a Friday or a Saturday evening race card at The Meadowlands. A crowd that I once was a part of a few decades ago. I am somewhat of a “survivor” but unfortunately many of my racetrack cronies have been wounded casualties along the way.

    No business can afford to keep sending out advertising fliers in the Sunday paper that hawks overpriced products. This is exactly what the parimutuel industry must address if it is to survive and prosper.

    The clock is ticking on the aging fan base and racetrack personnel’s jobs are hanging in the balance. Will the horse racing industry make it worthwhile to be a dedicated horse racing customer?

  3. There needs to be visible winners if you even want a hope in heck to attract newbies to the game.
    Online poker grew because the young internet crowd saw that some players were able to move from their parents basement to a mansion.
    Because the takeout is low enough, players could last no matter how bad they are to begin with.
    With so many racetracks going simultaneously, boredom should never be an issue for horse racing to overcome. It boils down to the cost of the bet, and right now it is way too high, and it prevents visible winners to be had (those who make a living betting races for a good living).

    Until that changes, horse racing will continue its downward spiral.

  4. Thank you for turning on the light bulb for me. As the father of two boys who think they know everything, I have tried to keep them attracted to horse racing but I get that answer of, not fun, too slow, my friends don’t understand, cost too much, why do I have to pay for so many services at the track when I’m wagering, nothing but old men here, the music is from the sixties and so on, so on. Your words have helped and I am not giving up. I enjoy reading your well written words and I hope my light stays on.

  5. When will this Cangamble dude figure out that nobody cares about the handle or the takeout??

  6. Bill, I can’t help but think that the new fan will be better suited to slots play rather than horseplay.

    Great stuff.

  7. I was standing in an Apple store this evening that was packed with young people all the way down about 5 years old. My thought was that the NTRA should rent time in these Apple stores and the new Windows stores to do demonstrations of handicapping and playing horses using the most modern technologies. That’s where the young people are.

  8. The powers that be who operate racetracks will have to change how the sport is presented to the generation with the attention span of a gnat. Something like Fri, Sat,Sun cards with 15 races on the card, 15 minutes apart & wagering with a cell phone The lesser jocks will still get a call or two. The smaller tracks can fill in the Mon,Tues,Wed dates etc. Failure to make this fundamental change will doom horse racing to a display at the Smithsonian Museum across form the dinosaur exhibit

  9. I was in a restaurant recently and sat at a table near to where a woman and an approximately 13 year old girl were sitting. I suppose it was mother and daughter. Anyway, during the meal I noticed that the entire time the girl was reading her Blackberry or I-Phone and paying no attention at all to her companion. Seems like a lesson in manners might be needed.

  10. For me, the challenge of handicapping is fun and competitive. Why don’t we cross correlate with similar fan based groups and target market. For example many baseball enthusiasts love all the statistic or people involved with fantasy leagues who enjoy both the challenge of picking players for a team and a wager. It is true as you imply that this is curently smaller demographic but it is one that seems in position to listen, understand and catch-on.

  11. Bennie the Boot says

    For the past year, I have been hosting a handicapping radio show, for the Palm Beach Kennel CLub, discussing greyhound and horse racing via simulcasting. The feedback I get from novice listeners is the Racing Form is too confusing to understand. I agree with everything in your piece and I am still searching for the magic formular to promote the game. I find it unbelievable that anyone can play on line poker involving cartoon characters. The game of poker is 70% being able to read the other peoples faces? We need to have a think tank!

  12. As a young person who loves horseracing (19 now, but have loved it since I was 11), I do not think it is an attention span problem, but a problem with familiarity. If horses were raced until an older age and raced more often, they could have time to build fan-bases. Even my younger sister, who could care less about horseracing, was on board with my family completely when we rooted for the likes of Zenyatta, Smarty Jones, etc. I think the industry should take serious considerations into allowing artificial insemination and possibly pushing the age of the runners in the Triple Crown to four years old instead of three, in order to build these fan-bases. And even though I know how to place a bet, many of my friends can’t. It should be a little easier to do that.