Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland Football League striving to cash in on attendances increase

By Stuart McKinley

The man at the top of domestic football in Northern Ireland believes that the long hours spent on a consultation process were well worth the effort.

Andrew Johnston, the Managing Director of the Northern Ireland Football League, is also in no doubt that the 2015-16 campaign can be even better than the hugely successful 2014-15 season.

With twists and turns galore in a gripping title race, attendances increased at Danske Bank Premiership matches - 18,363 more people went through the turnstiles.

Whether that was down to what was widely considered as the best season on the pitch in years or other factors is hard to judge. What is certain, however, is that the league can't rely on that happening again to keep the numbers rising as the new season kicks off.

"There was an increase of 8.5 per cent in attendances last season. It had been higher, around 13-14 per cent at one time, but over the course of the season it was 8.5 per cent," revealed Johnston.

"In the first 14 matches of last season the lead changed 12 times. No matter what we try to do we can't replicate that. We know we have more work to do.

"In our three-year plan we had set a target of a rise of 15 per cent by the end of this season, so we are well on target to meet that.

"At the moment we are sitting at 12-13 per cent from when the Northern Ireland Football League came into existence."

As far as NIFL are concerned, one of the reasons crowds went up was the trial of regular Friday night matches. While some clubs embraced the idea fully, others weren't so keen, but it looks very much like it's something that is here to stay.

"There seems to be a Friday night sports market and it's how we can tap in to that and make it appealing," said Johnston.

"There's maybe some work to be done on that, but we see it as a really good opportunity.

"It may not be every week, because of different circumstances, but we will try to do as many as we can. Friday nights do work."

This season will be longer than before too. After the title race finishes, there will be more big games for fans to get their teeth into with the new Europa League play-off system kicking in come May.

With that stretching down as far as seventh place in the league, there will plenty of matches with interest in them.

"I think what we wanted to do was add a bit more excitement," said Johnston. "It is something different and hopefully it is something that will grab the interest of the clubs and again it's just about creating that competitive edge.

"During the Uefa study and consultation, the term that kept coming out to me was competition progress, which is basically having more and more games that have something riding on them and mean something.

"If you consider now that out of 12 position in the Premiership, we only have three positions within the league that aren't critical positions.

"Again it's just about adding more and more of an edge."

Getting a live television deal to replace the Sky Sports coverage is a key part of Johnston's aims and objectives for the new season. Setanta Sports are interested, but the finer details have yet to be ironed out.

A glamour match come the end of the season to mark the 125th anniversary of league football in Northern Ireland is also on the agenda.

"The 125th anniversary of league football is obviously something that you do want to celebrate," said Johnston.

"We'll have a number of celebration weekends, we hope to have a key event which will round the season off and we'd like a big match with a League XI, but it's negotiating for a team to come."

Belfast Telegraph


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