The Lions fan experience has dramatically changed with Detroit’s recent rise

USA Today

“You guys sure are fun to watch.”

“Man, I love your coach. He’s awesome!”

“I think the Lions can win it all next year. That’s a really great team.”

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That’s a sampling of what I’ve heard this week in Orlando when wearing my trusty old Detroit Lions hat. It’s a very different experience being a proud Lions fan these days.

I’ve been in Orlando since Sunday with my daughter’s volleyball team with thousands of other teams from all over the country. It’s a great melting pot of sports parents of all demographics and fan loyalties.

That makes it a very good place to take the temperature of how people outside the Great Lakes feel about the Detroit Lions. And let me tell you, the Lions are red hot in the national fan psyche.

It began Monday morning when our Grand Rapids-based team faced a very talented squad from Pittsburgh. There’s always a nervous energy with the parents as our daughters warm up for the match. We’re all basically clustered together, divided on our respective sides of the net but proximal enough to exchange (mostly) pleasantries.

One dad pointed at my hat and asked if we were from Detroit. He then, unprompted, spent the next three minutes telling me how highly he thought of Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta. He thinks we’re the best team in the NFC and wants to see us playing his Bills (he said that part quietly as a Yinzer) in the Super Bowl.

(side note–congrats to Pittsburgh Elite for winning the Silver division in 15 Open)

We played a team from San Diego, and a couple of the dads standing close by the court were talking about new Chargers coach Jim Harbaugh. Knowing we were from Michigan, myself and another dad got roped into their conversation. That’s where the second and third quotes from above came out.

Standing in line for coffee–a seemingly interminable rite of passage at every volleyball tournament but especially here–gave others the license to ask me about my Lions hat. The barrage of unsolicited praise and excitement for this Detroit team just kept on coming. I didn’t identify myself as someone who covers the team, either. People are just that excited about the Dan Campbell Lions that it comes out. I even got a few questions if Campbell would be here in attendance, as his daughter plays club volleyball (he was not in Orlando).

I had one lengthy conversation with a dad from a team in Indiana that we play quite a bit, who knows that I have been team media for a good while. He’s a former college football player and has a son who just recently completed playing college football; he knows the game very well. He wanted to talk about Jared Goff and the offensive line, pointing out how perfectly the offense is built to make Goff thrive with his skills. He also talked up Aidan Hutchinson, wishing his Colts had him to anchor their defense.

It was striking how much positive energy from afar there is surrounding these Lions. Fans of other teams–outside of the NFC North–genuinely seem to really like Campbell, Goff, Jahmyr Gibbs, Penei Sewell, Hutchinson, et al. It seems the Lions are being embraced as a lot of folks’ “second” team. They have their own fandom, be it Ravens or Colts or Buccaneers or Saints, and then they want the Lions to thrive outside of their own.

That’s surely quite a change from years past. The same Lions hat never drew any attention in previous large volleyball tournaments, be it Orlando or anywhere else. Nobody outside of Michigan who wasn’t somehow associated with Detroit fandom really thought much about the Lions at all. They were a conversation-ender, even in tournaments in Michigan crowded with actual Lions fans.

“You cover the Lions? What a terrible gig.”

I got that kind of thing a lot, from both locals and folks wherever I traveled with my kids for their travel sports. The sympathy and derision have turned to excitement and encouragement. I’ve always been proud to be a Lions fan. Now it’s (finally!) cool to be a proud Lions fan with the rest of the sports world.

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