Top-tier professional athletes have been celebrities since just about the day before forever. It was nearly a century ago when New York Yankees legend Babe Ruth was featured in advertising campaigns and in movies. In some ways, Ruth provided the blueprint for how modern-day athletes can turn themselves into brands. It is no longer rare for a well-known athlete to branch out and embrace business endeavors that have nothing to do with their day jobs. Athletes are now businessmen and businesswomen, stars in movies and in advertisements and people who are famous not only in their own countries but all around the world.
It should be no surprise to anybody who follows mainstream sports that the individual deemed by the ESPN World Fame 100 to be the most famous athlete in the world is a soccer/world football star. What may be somewhat surprising, however, is that the second person on that list is an athlete who has been a National Basketball Association personality for over a decade. Media rights deals and also online streaming has helped grow the popularity of the NBA like never before, and thus the question has to be asked: Are we only a couple of years away from the most famous athlete in the world being somebody who plays in the NBA?
9 Rafael Nadal
The days of Rafael Nadal being the best tennis player in the world are now a thing in the past, as Nadal is seemingly no longer in his prime. This has not stopped him from being featured in international advertising campaigns as he was during the 2015 edition of the U.S. Open. Who will ever forget that dazzling and sensational Wimbledon thriller involving Nadal and Roger Federer? Whether or not that was, in fact, the greatest single tennis match ever played will be debated for as long as the sport exists, but those of us who were lucky enough to catch it will always feel grateful to both Nadal and Federer for what they gave to us and to the sport on that day.
8 James Rodriguez
It was in the summer of 2014 when the world was formally introduced to a young footballer named James Rodriguez. Rodriguez was arguably the top player at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and his play on the world's biggest stage helped land him a contract offer from Spanish giants Real Madrid. The talented midfielder is now a Champions League winner who may once again dazzle fans while featuring for Colombia, this time during the Copa America of 2016. Remember that Rodriguez is only 24-years-old, and thus his best days on the pitch could still be ahead of him.
7 Virat Kohli
There are likely some of you scratching your heads at the inclusion of this name on the list of the most famous athletes in the world for 2016. Virat Kohli is a cricketer - specifically a batsman - and he is widely regarded as the best player in the world as it pertains to this sport. It also doesn't hurt that Kohli is reportedly dating Anushka Sharma, one of the hottest actresses in all of Bollywood. Kohli is also believed to be a talented footballer, one who has competed in charity matches. In all, Kohli is perceived as one of the most marketable athletes in all of the world.
6 Tiger Woods
Will Tiger Woods ever again be the player of old? It is the question that continues to be asked heading into the summer of 2016. Woods' public return did not go all that well, as he hit a few shots into the drink and looked like somebody strolling out to the practice course after spending some time at the bar. Woods has had multiple back surgeries, and he has also dealt with knee and shoulder injuries in the past. Everybody, particularly die-hard Tiger fans and also those running the PGA, should ready themselves for the reality of life without Woods. Woods may still be the most famous golfer in the world, but his body has betrayed him.
5 Kevin Durant
This one is somewhat surprising when you think about it. Kevin Durant is unquestionably one of the best players in the NBA today, but Durant has never won a ring. One would not be blamed for believing that Durant is not nearly as popular as are Most Valuable Players, such as Stephen Curry and LeBron James. Durant is, if he chooses to do so, about to hit up free agency and get paid. The possibility also exists that Durant could sign a one-year deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder before he puts pen to paper on a massive deal. Whatever happens, Durant's star should only get brighter in the near future.
5. Roger Federer
Enjoy watching Roger Federer for as long as you possibly can. The day is coming, sooner and not later, when Federer will no longer be a pro and on the tour. The veteran of the sport, who will be 35-years-old by the end of summer, is currently dealing with an injured back, but it is believed that Federer will make a return to action before Wimbledon. Federer showed during 2015 that he still had plenty left in the tank even if he is no longer the best player in the world. Federer's greatness on the court is enough for him to be one of the most famous athletes on the planet. That Federer has endorsement deals with companies such as Nike has not hurt his cause.
3 Lionel Messi
Neymar will, so long as he remains with the current kings of Spanish football, one day be the top player at Barcelona and probably the best footballer in the world. For now, however, Neymar takes a back-seat to his club team-mate. Lionel Messi has been a player for the ages even if he has not been all-worldly while featuring for his national team, and history will remember him as one of the most famous athletes of his generation. Here is something to think about: Will Messi be even more popular if he chooses to make a switch to the Premier League, the world's most-watched league, before he calls time on his career?
2 LeBron James
Sandwiched in-between the two greatest footballers of the past couple of decades is the best NBA player of his time. LeBron James has, as of the posting of this piece, won a pair of NBA titles. James has been to six straight NBA Finals, and he is hoping to be the man responsible for ending the pro sports title drought that has haunted Cleveland for over 50 years. James may also soon be the star of Space Jam 2. If that movie is as beloved as was the original, James could become the most popular and most famous athlete in the world before he retires as a player and moves on to other business opportunities.
1 Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano Ronaldo is having a fine 2016, thank you very much. While Ronaldo and Real Madrid did not manage to overtake rivals Barcelona in the La Liga table, Real did defeat Atletico Madrid in the Champions League Final. It was none other than Ronaldo who buried the match-winning penalty, before removing his shirt to celebrate because of course he did. Along with flexing while shirtless and hoisting trophies, Ronaldo is also featured in multiple advertising campaigns. Ronaldo may be the most famous current athlete in the world, but he has a ways to go before he matches David Beckham. Only Beckham is Beckham as of 2016.