Guest Post: Visa at the Olympics–Everywhere, Even if You Don’t Want it to be

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Greetings from sometimes beautiful, but often rainy Vancouver! My name is Sean Gregory, and I’m a TIME staff writer on assignment covering the Winter Olympics. Though I’m not as curious about business and economics as the excellent gatekeepers of this blog (I’m a weirdo who tends to get stoked about the Nordic Combined event), there plenty of capitalism in play at the Olympics, so thought it would be fun to weigh in.

To wit: A few hours ago, I received a press release from Visa in my inbox. If you’ve watched just a few minutes of these Olympics on television, you probably know from the endless advertisements that Visa is the exclusive credit card sponsor of the Games. Among the data points the company was proud to trumpet were:

•       For the first 11 days of the Games, international Visa cardholder spending in British Columbia was US$72 million, which is an increase of 84 percent compared with the same period last year.

and

•       Overall, international visitors have made more than 700,000 transactions since the day of the Opening Day Ceremony on Visa cards in British Columbia.  This is an increase of 71 percent when comparing the period this year against the same period last year.

But here’s what the press release doesn’t tell you:

As the exclusive sponsor of the Olympics, spectators at the venues, shoppers at the official Olympic store, and we lemmings at the media center can ONLY make purchases with a Visa card. In fact, you can only access the ATMs at these places with a Visa card. No Visa, no cash. So as one of the many people who are forced to trek to the bank and open a temporary account, with a Visa debit card, or purchase a prepaid Visa card so I can buy stuff at the Olympics (my bank only issues Mastercard), I find these statistics infuriating.

First of all, of course Visa card spending is going rise a ton year-over-year in British Columbia. When tens of thousands of people parachute into town for a global event, the numbers will look impressive. Duh. But these numbers are also totally skewed in Visa’s favor because the company forces people to use the card at Olympics venues.

Exclusivity is Visa reward for paying a gazillion dollars to the sponsor the Olympics, I guess. But that doesn’t mean Visa is being fair to consumers. It’s one thing for Coke, another exclusive sponsor, to be the only cola brand available in the venues. Pepsi drinkers will survive. It’s quite another to be forced to go through the inconvenience of opening new accounts and transferring money. Or even worse, getting to the Games and realizing you can’t grab a soda or buy a hat on your Mastercard or American Express.

POSTSCRIPT: We gave Visa a chance to respond, and Andrew Woodward, head of communication for Visa sponsorships, weighed in with the following: “The data we have released is for all spending in British Columbia, not just at Olympic venues. The overwhelming majority of spending is in accommodation, travel, entertainment, and restaurants.”

“We recognize there are people in such situations who have American Express or Mastercard, their options are to buy a prepaid Visa or use cash.”

MY REPONSE TO RESPONSE: Fair enough. But no matter how you cut it, Visa’s deal as the Olympic sponsor creates an unwanted pain in the rear for consumers.

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