Penn College grad gets a 'kick' out of her job

August 21, 2020

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — From creating “bubbles” to coping with empty stadiums, professional sports leagues have faced a gantlet of challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. A Pennsylvania College of Technology alumna has a clear “picture” of the predicament, thanks to her role with a team that has resumed its season.

And Jessica L. Tobias is still smiling.

Jessica L. Tobias

Jessica L. Tobias, a 2013 graduate of Pennsylvania College of Technology, has a clear “picture” of how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted professional sports, thanks to her role as creative manager and photographer for FC Dallas, one of 26 teams that comprise Major League Soccer.

IMAGE: Penn College

The 2013 graduate is the creative manager and photographer for FC Dallas, one of 26 teams that comprise Major League Soccer. On Aug. 12, Dallas hosted the first match of the league’s regular-season revival, a 1-0 loss to Nashville SC at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. The contest was the first for both teams since the league suspended operations on March 12 when all clubs had played just two games.

“Of course, I was excited. I really hadn’t had a photo assignment since the pandemic started,” said Tobias, who earned a bachelor’s degree in graphic design with a photography minor. “It was a weird night being the first match back and dealing with a lot of protocols. I was second-guessing myself, not sure if I could be in certain areas to shoot. My normal shooting positions were in question.”

Despite that uncertainty and the absence of her army of interns and other photographers, Tobias persevered, taking 300 photos with her customary three lenses.

“You really have to go with the flow because the way you’ve done things may not work anymore,” she said. “The main thing is to be flexible and understanding and try to be positive no matter what.”

Being positive isn’t too hard for Tobias because her job mixes two loves that she developed at Penn College – graphic design and photography. “I learned so much at Penn College. I was very involved, and that was a big factor in my success there,” she said.

Tobias’ involvement included student photographer duties for the college. Shooting Wildcat Athletics ignited a passion for sports photography, which included annual freelance work at the Little League Baseball World Series. Following graduation, Tobias served as a graphic designer, web designer and account manager at an advertising agency in Louisiana before accepting the graphic design position at FC Dallas in January 2017. The franchise promoted her to creative manager about 18 months later.

“I wanted to get back in the sports world,” Tobias said. “I missed the excitement of going to games and being in the mix of all of that.”

Some of Tobias’ recent photos actually include fans in the stands. About 2,000 were scattered throughout the 20,500-seat Toyota Stadium for the Aug. 12 Dallas-Nashville match. It was the first time one of the major sports leagues in the U.S. allowed spectators during the pandemic. The only “fans” at baseball, basketball and hockey games are virtual or cardboard cutouts.

“We had some fans leading chants, but it was definitely much quieter than a pre-pandemic match,” Tobias said. “You could hear the players yelling on the field.”                                                           

Last season, Dallas’ average attendance was 14,842.

According to MLS policy, local health guidelines dictate which stadiums can be opened to spectators. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said venues can operate at 50% capacity. FC Dallas set its limit at 25%, meaning a maximum of 5,110 people could have attended the match. Fans had to sign a liability waiver, agreeing not to sue if exposed to COVID-19.

“I know there were only a couple thousand, but there were more people than I actually thought there would be,” said Tobias, who grew up in Trout Run and graduated from Williamsport Area High School. “The stadium is completely divided, and we have specific zones for fans. The fans have to come in through a certain gate and go through screening.”

As for her safety, Tobias and her two graphic designers continue to work mostly from home. All FC Dallas employees are classified into tiers to determine the frequency of testing for the coronavirus. Tier 1 employees are tested the most, since they have considerable interaction with the players. Tobias has tier 2-status, someone with limited team contact. She gets tested on days of matches.

“From my point of view, I think it’s as safe as we can possibly make it,” she said.

The league’s encouragement to place massive tarps, dubbed “seat kills,” over sections of the stadium off limits to fans created last-minute hurdles for Tobias prior to last week’s relaunch. She had to ensure the correct placement and look of sponsors’ logos on the new tarps. That became a problem when she had less than 48 hours to find a new tarp vendor.

“I had to call in favors with multiple vendors to get it done. I spent a lot of time in the stadium trying to get it right,” Tobias said. “The fact you’re dealing with sponsors and league partners brings it to a whole different level.”

The tarp assignment reflects her role overseeing the design of marketing content for the team, Toyota Stadium (a 145-acre multipurpose sports and entertainment facility) and the National Soccer Hall of Fame, housed within the stadium complex. Brainstorming sessions are common, such as devising ways to maintain fan engagement despite more than 150 days with no matches.

FC Dallas lost its chance to play in the MLS is Back Tournament – conducted throughout July and early August in a “bubble” at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando – when several players tested positive for the coronavirus. Instead of competing in that high-profile, one-off tourney, the team spent a month back in Texas preparing for last week’s resumption of the MLS regular season.

“It was disappointing because we looked forward to seeing our guys out on the field again,” said Tobias, who didn’t accompany the club to Orlando due to a family matter. “Playing soccer is their love; it’s what they live for. Being sent home was definitely difficult for them.”

However, the absence of games freed up time to kick around creative ideas.

“We started to think outside the box with how we can bump up our community involvement,” Tobias said.

One of the results is the “Connect Create Unite” campaign (www.fcdallas.com/unite), promoting FC Dallas’ activities that celebrate diversity and inclusion. The centerpiece of “Connect Create Unite” is a powerful video featuring team members, Dallas residents and striking street symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement. The video calls for all to unite in response to the coronavirus and social unrest.

“One of our videographers and I went out and did a photo and video shoot together,” Tobias said. “We had a loose script. We just started talking to random people in the street. When we explained what the initiative was about and asked if they would like to have their picture taken and be in the video, nine out of 10 were like, ‘Oh sure, what do you want me to do?’

“It was great being able to interact with people on that level. The social justice movement is a big deal, and I’m really glad that our organization is taking it seriously.”

On the field, Tobias is hopeful that FC Dallas will be one of the 14 teams to qualify for the MLS playoffs, which are scheduled to begin in October. While that is far from certain, Tobias did offer one guarantee: When she thinks about her job, she’ll be smiling.

Penn College offers a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and an associate degree in advertising art. For more about those programs and other majors in the School of Business, Arts & Sciences, visit www.pct.edu/bas or call 570-327-4521.

Penn College is a national leader in applied technology education. Visit www.pct.edu, email admissions@pct.edu or call toll-free at 800-367-9222.

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Last Updated August 21, 2020