How Michigan Became the Center of the Sports Universe

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For the first time maybe…ever? Michigan is the epicenter of the sports world. The state started off 2024 with its beloved University of Michigan football team winning the national championship. This weekend, the historically tragic Detroit Lions find themselves one win away from their first trip to the Super Bowl. Heck, even the Fab Five are co-existing for the first time in three decades. It’s Motor City mania, baby!

Detroit-area fandom is longstanding and hardcore. But the last few months have done what was once considered impossible: it’s made casual sports fans outside of the upper Midwest take notice of what’s happening. Detroit has suffered through sporting heartbreak for most of its existence—shout out anyone old enough to remember the Tigers’ four World Series appearances from 1934 to 1945—with brief interruptions of winning conservatively sprinkled in since. In this century, the Pistons and Red Wings have each brought trophies home, but it never led to the full-on, extended flow state that other places like Boston or the Bay Area have enjoyed from their sports teams.

No matter what happens to the Lions on Sunday against the favored 49ers, this team will go down in history as one of the more remarkably likable teams Detroit has ever seen. While they lack the boisterousness of the Bad Boy Pistons or the steady dominance of the Steve Yzerman Red Wings, the Lions have something for everyone to get behind. Whether it’s the dominant wide receiver whose bodybuilder father named him after the Egyptian sun god, the aww shucks quarterback who did not lead the Lions to victory until his 12th game with the team, or the homegrown defensive end with the cartoonish pass rush moves, Detroit is undoubtedly America’s Team right now. They’ll be playing the night game on Sunday—knocking Taylor Swift out of primetime, no less!—with an overwhelming majority of the country rooting for them and their underdog spirit. One shot, one opportunity, to seize everything they ever wanted…

And though it can sometimes feel like you go to sleep in one universe and wake up the next day in another, the seeds of change were almost always planted long ago. When it comes to Michigan’s dominance, the roots date back to a few years ago.

There is probably no Wolverines title without their disastrous 2020 pandemic season and subsequent, rise-from-the-ashes win over Ohio State back in 2021, which snapped a brutal eight-year losing streak against their despised rival. If that game was the exorcism, this year’s national championship was the salvation. The Lions are nowhere near this position if not for head coach Dan Campbell, hired just over three years ago. Many people pointed and laughed when Campbell launched into a bizarre diatribe about biting the opponents’ kneecaps during his introductory press conference. But now, having feasted on the Rams and Buccaneers’ patellas en route to this weekend’s NFC Championship game, the laughter has gone from at him to with him. If you’re still clinging to the (admittedly ridiculous) content of that speech all these years later, your kneecap has already been digested.

But, as the Wolverines and Lions ride high, there is another Michigan-based sports team occupying the other end of the sports spectrum. I’m talking, of course, about the catastrophically terrible Detroit Pistons. The Pistons are the worst team in the NBA—full stop—and their 5-39 record puts them on pace to be one of the worst teams in league history. (The 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers, who went 9-73, are owners of the worst record in an 82-game season.) The thing about these Pistons, though, is that they’re still relevant. There is some merit, the thinking goes, in being so bad that your badness in itself becomes a story. There is no pride in mediocrity; no nobility in silently suffering. For comparison’s sake, how often have you thought about the completely anonymous, almost equally laughable Portland Trail Blazers this season?

At least with the Pistons, their struggles brought an entertaining 28-game losing streak that had fans from way outside Michigan tuning in to see if tonight would be the night they finally got a win. When that fateful day arrived just before the new year, with a win over the Raptors, the Pistons had their own moment in the sun. Very few atrocious teams get the attention that this one has—an accidentally hilarious WingStop campaign is partially to thank there as well—and even when times get rough, it’s better to be known than to be ignored. If the tin foil hat wearers of the world want to say things like this are done to keep the Pistons from disappearing into the shadows, I’d listen.

We’ll have to wait and see what becomes of the Red Wings, who are currently in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016, and the Tigers, who have also fallen on very difficult times as of late. But if the Lions are any indication of how quickly things can turn around for Motor City, a place that knows a thing or two about fighting back from hardship, those franchises could be in for a heartwarming resurgence as well.

Originally Appeared on GQ