WHILE doubts are cast on the Welsh Premier League's generally unpopular 12-club format, the equivalent league across the water in Northern Ireland is thriving.
Attendances are on the increase in the 12-club Danske Bank Premiership with more than 12,000 additional fans through the turnstiles during the first half of the 2016/17 season compared to the same period last year.
With 116,548 fans in total so far after 19 rounds of matches, this shows an increase of over 12% from the first half of the 2015/16 season.
In contrast, the WPL has attracted just 31,990 spectators, a decrease of 1.9% on last season.
With four of the league's clubs located in the province's capital Belfast, which has a metropolitan population of just over half a million, the league has an advantage in producing a far higher number of derby games than the WPL. And, although the leading clubs in England and Scotland attract plenty of fans from Ulster to watch their games, the numbers are far lower than those from Wales.
The best supported club, Linfield, attracts an average of more than 2,000 fans, while four figure gates are normal at Glentoran, Crusaders, Cliftonville, Ballymena and Glenavon. Only Dungannon Swifts and Carrick Rangers have lower average gates than Bangor City, the best-supported WPL club.
Each team initially plays every other team three times, either twice at home and once away, or once at home and twice away, for a total of 33 fixtures per team. The league then splits in WPL fashion to settle championship, European qualification and relegation issues. The majority of weekend games kick-off at 3.00pm on a Saturday.
"We have been aware that attendances have been rising but to show an increase of over 12% for the first half of this season is fantastic," said NIFL managing director Andrew Johnston.
"I have to praise the clubs in doing an excellent job in promoting their games but especially for the fantastic work they do through sponsorship initiatives and community work in their local areas."
Since the formation of the NI Football League for the start of the 2013/14 season, overall attendances in the Danske Bank Premiership have increased by a remarkable 25% and Johnston knows that as well as the work that has been going on off the pitch to bring the fans through the turnstiles, it is ultimately what happens on the pitch that will ensure they come back each week.
"The players and managers have also played their part in this increase in attendances by producing thrilling games week in week out. Take Crusaders who are top of the league for example. They have scored winning or equalising goals in the dying minutes of four of their last five games.
"This is the type of excitement and drama that fans are turning out to see, and I have absolutely no doubt it will continue for the rest of this season and beyond."