I aim to avoid any bias when covering lacrosse teams and clubs, but there is one group in Japan that I’m absolutely in love with: Stealers LC.
From arguably the greatest mascot in the game’s history, Steve, to a color scheme that will give any team a run for its money, the Stealers Lacrosse Club has an energy and style all of its own. While the Stealers are still seeking their first major title, their fluctuation between second and third at the club and national level for the past eight season proves that they are among the world’s highest-achieving lacrosse clubs.
Japanese lacrosse has remained a topic of international conversation since their debut in the 1994 FIL World Championships. Although lacrosse players in Japan predominately begin their lacrosse careers once they enter university, their fitness levels, stick work and passion for the game quickly propel the level of play with each class of incoming new players. The senior men’s team placed as high as fourth out of 29 teams in the 2010 games in Manchester, proving that Japan can hang with the rest of the lacrosse world.
Without a professional league of their own, Japan has exported a handful of talent to Major League Lacrosse over the past decade, most recently with three Stealers: Kaisuke Iwamoto and Toma Tamura in 2018 and Kota Kurashima in 2019. Maintaining a high level of excellence outside of the club, eight other Stealers have competed at least once with Japan at a World Lacrosse Championship.
The Stealers LC launched in 2009 as a member of the East Japan Lacrosse League. The motto “a new wind in the lacrosse world” has been used since the foundation to inspire progress and forward thinking for the club. This concept has been at the core of the group’s branding and decision making, even inventing their own team name and mascot to stand out in the busy Tokyo sports scene.
Midfielder Wataru Yamada explained the name Stealers as more than a play on an American football team.
“The origin of the name means to take the ball.” Yamada explained. “Take the space, take the score, take the eyes of the people watching. Take the title of the champion, like Stealers.”
The club consists of 40 players and 19 various staff members. Without a designated facility of their own, the group shifts around Tokyo for training and games, usually landing at Komazawa Olympic Park for home contests. The Stealers are a labor of love, with no full-time organizers or athletes, all with either school or jobs and other responsibilities. Yet, their passion for the game is what motivates them to trek all over a buzzing metropolis for any chance to play.
Although there’s plenty of hurdles to grow a game with roots on the other side of the globe, Stealers LC is looking through a modern lens to address how they can use lacrosse to make an impact on their community.
“We love lacrosse, and we think that the potential of lacrosse in Japan is unlimited,” Yamada insists. “We want to liven up the lacrosse in Japan.”
Two outcomes from their positive thinking is the establishment of a dedicated media team and the implementation of a new mascot named “Steve.” The volunteer group creating content for the club was recruited from outside lacrosse to bring their talents and skill sets to help grow the sport with a fresh perspective. Trying things out last season, the Stealers were the first club in Japan with a dedicated team of creators focusing on their athletes. They are using a high volume of content output with a professional feel to attract more potential athletes and bodies to watch come game time.
The other tactic to catch more eyes: Steve.
Steve is a bright green alien that now serves as the official mascot of the Stealers. Vasallo, the lone lacrosse equipment and apparel company in Japan, designed the character for the club. Although lacrosse is still a relatively small sport in Japan, the Stealers recognize their ability to get the attention of newcomers and plant a positive impression of lacrosse from first glance.
“We thought that we should make a friendly logo,” Yamada reflected. “Even if you don’t know lacrosse, we are happy that they are interested in Steve. We want them to know lacrosse with Steve as a trigger.”
The friendly space monster’s namesake was actually the outcome of a crowdsourced campaign, in which ”Steve” was picked through the suggestion of a Stealers fan. Aside from engaging supporters through social media, the Stealers also have started “Project Green” in the stadium, helping to turn the crowd a loud and proud Stealers LC shade of green by passing out small support signs.
While the excitement around the Stealers grows, the club is faced with the common challenge on how to not only recruit but develop higher level talent. While the Stealers aren’t the youngest team in Japan, their four youngest players are all 22 with only five years of experience at the most. At the other end of the roster, 38-year-old Jun Kobayashi has been competing for two decades, yet still only started in university.
One way they are starting to look ahead is by sharing the game with younger generations. The Stealers are exploring more ways to expand on the work they’re doing with the local youth and extending their reach with college students. Their excelled leverage on social media platforms will continue to drive the conversation around the work the Stealers are doing to grow Japanese lacrosse.