SYDNEY

It's almost 160 years since the first Australian Rules football club was formed, but women will take a significant step forward in the male-dominated sport when a female national league starts next year.

Women have long been involved in Aussie Rules -- a dynamic game similar to Ireland's Gaelic football -- with half of the sport's fanbase made up of females. Yet the deeply traditional AFL, where two singlet-clad teams of 18 handle and kick a rugby-shaped ball on large, oval fields, has usually focused on men's teams.

Last year, the surprisingly high viewership for a televised women's exhibition game caught the attention of administrators, who decided to bring forward a national women's competition by four years to 2017.

"I think we've probably realised across the last 12 months that the groundswell in interest and participation from females in the game justified establishment next year rather than waiting any longer," AFL general manager for game and market development Simon Lethlean told AFP.

It's not the only step into new territory for Aussie Rules, which is also eyeing the Chinese market with Port Adelaide set to play a league game in the Asian country next year. Women's AFL participation rates soared by 46 percent in 2015, while sports-mad Australia has also witnessed a surge in the profile of elite female athletes.

Jockey Michelle Payne became the first woman to win Australia's 154-year-old Melbourne Cup, the Diamonds secured their third-straight Netball World Cup, while the Matildas became the first Australian football team to win a knock-out game at a World Cup.

Australia's women's cricket side were handed a big pay rise, becoming the country's top earners in any female team sport, after making this month's World Twenty20 final. Australia also has a rich heritage of world-beating women in individual sports like tennis, swimming, cycling and athletics.

"The momentum is such that it's almost unstoppable -- no point in delaying it further," one of Australia's leading sports historians, Rob Hess of Victoria University, told AFP of creating a national AFL women's league. "Those televised games... show there is an audience out there wanting to see good, competitive women's football."

The Victoria Women's Football League became the first Aussie Rules competition for females when it was formed in 1981. Other state leagues have since emerged, but not a national competition. Yet interest in the game stretches back at least to 1876, said Hess, citing a girl's comments in her school magazine: "Why can't we have a football team just like the boys do? They seem to have so much fun."

Today's women's players, whose ranks are numbered at about 400,000, now dream of one day turning professional. That's definitely my goal... to be called an AFL footballer," said 20-year-old Maddy Collier, who played for the Sydney Swans in an exhibition match against Greater Western Sydney Giants this month. "It's a career path now. It was unthinkable a couple of years ago but it's now all coming together. It's very exciting."

The inaugural league's footballers, some of whom currently play for free in state competitions, will be paid by the AFL, although no figures have been released. Some 250 women, from sports as diverse as ultimate frisbee and surf lifesaving, have taken part in a nationwide talent search to join one of the league's eight teams in the eight-week competition.

Timing is crucial to the league's longevity. The AFL is targeting February-March after the Australian Open tennis and the cricket season winds up, but before the men's AFL season starts, to capitalise on a gap in the sporting schedule and attract sponsors. Despite the crowded sporting landscape, Hess believes the women's free-flowing style of play will be a major drawcard.

Indigenous Giants' player Codie Briggs, 25, who has often worked a 2am-10am shift as a pastry chef and baker before running onto a pitch for an 11am game in the New South Wales state league, has dreams of playing on the Melbourne Cricket Ground in Victoria.

The MCG, or just the "G", the spiritual home of Aussie Rules, is where her uncle David Wirrpanda lined up for the West Coast Eagles during his 1996-2009 professional playing career at the Western Australia club. "I watched him in the MCG. That for me is the big stage, that's what I'm aiming for," Briggs said.