If you truly enjoy both playing and spectating sports, you can't help but watch the best athletes in the world and wish you could be them. Even if you aren't much of a sports fan, you've probably watched Tom Brady or Lionel Messi, have some understanding of their glorious lifestyles, and realized that your life sucks compared to theirs.
As much as some of us will always wish we could shoot like Stephen Curry or rock a headband like Rafael Nadal, we never will. However, we can compare the superstardom of athletes in different sports and debate which sport is ideal for being iconic. It's a fairly simple exercise to compare in each sport the financial rewards, the global/national fame, the physical demands and long-term effects, and the overall lifestyles.
We can start by immediately removing hockey from the equation. I actually enjoy watching the NHL, especially when the suspense is ratcheted up 100x during the playoffs, but it is a grueling sport with little benefit to its superstars relative to other sports when it comes to money, recognition and lifestyle. Toothless NHL players get physically demolished on a nightly basis over an 82-game season and the league's salary cap is comically low compared to other sports. I bet most casual sports fans probably can't name any NHL stars aside from a few guys like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Overchkin.
Golf and tennis can be viewed fairly similarly to one another within this debate. Both are chill country club sports with globally popular followings and constantly lucrative payouts. Golf, though requiring tireless amounts of repetition and preparation, is especially forgiving in terms of long-term physical effects. Athletes like Tiger Woods and Serena Williams make ridiculous amounts of money and they've reached the competitive pinnacles of their respective sports; I can't begin to imagine being the one to catalyze the Sunday roars during a Tiger run. Both tennis and golf have compelling cases, but ultimately the global fan bases for both are too limited and niche in my opinion.
Baseball might've been the consensus answer some time before the Internet era and the globalization of sports consumption. America's former pastime, while still financially rewarding for the best players, is not the iconic game it used to be. It's also far more physically crushing than it might appear - 162 games and endless travel takes a serious toll. Count me out unless I'm a post-steroids Barry Bonds depositing 450-foot bombs into McCovey Cove every night.
Many Americans would die to be Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, and I'm among them. There's nothing more badass and American than a stud, Super Bowl-winning quarterback. But I also enjoy having a half-functioning brain, so I'd rather not mess with developing CTE. Plenty of money and fame here, but not enough to outweigh the inevitable physical destruction. Pass.
After eliminating the aforementioned sports, I have a hard time choosing between basketball and soccer in this debate. Both yield endless money and god-like global and national reverence. Consider the lives of LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo. If anything, they are too popular - never could they imagine walking around in public without being swarmed by strangers and causing a social media outburst. Both sports are immensely physically demanding, but not devastatingly so, as in the case of football and hockey. People all over the world glue themselves to TVs during the NBA Finals and the World Cup - my jaw is still on the ground in a pub in Europe from the moment Ronaldo drilled a free kick to tie Portugal's group stage match against Spain.
Despite my strong personal preference for basketball, I'm going with soccer based on the profoundly deep presence of the game in every corner of the globe. It offers equivalent or superior earnings potential to any other sport, it likely won't jeopardize a player's long term health, and most convincingly, soccer superstars experience global icon status on a completely different level than any other sport.