By Liana B. Baker
(Reuters) - Visa Inc, one of the Olympics' top global sponsors, kicks off its global advertising campaign for the Summer Games on Sunday with no plans to cut back on its Olympic presence despite difficulties in host country Brazil.
The U.S. payment provider said it has seen no significant cancellations in trips to Rio de Janeiro, either among its own team or Olympic ticket and travel package purchasers, over concerns of an outbreak of the Zika virus and political upheaval in Brazil.
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"We are being very proactive about preparing our employees, guests and clients and customers who will be attending for eventualities that might occur, but we feel pretty good about it," Lynne Biggar, Visa's chief marketing and communications officer, said in an interview.
"We have not seen any different pattern of cancellation than we do in any Olympic games," she added.
The company has a unique vantage point on travel plans because, as a sponsor of the International Olympic Committee since 1986, it provides the only form of payment accepted besides cash for official Olympic tickets and packages.
Visa expects 400,000 to 500,000 visitors to attend the Rio Games, which run from Aug. 5-21, the first Olympics ever to be held in South America.
Brazil was awarded the Olympics in 2009, when it was enjoying a period of strong economic growth, but has since fallen into its worst recession in decades. Congress has suspended President Dilma Rousseff while she faces an impeachment trial.
The country is waging the world's most serious battle against Zika, a mosquito-borne virus that is linked to the birth defect microcephaly. The World Health Organization has advised that pregnant women avoid travel to Zika outbreak areas.
SPONSORING 46 ATHLETES
Visa's global ad campaign kicks off Sunday night when it will air its first Olympics commercial during Game 7 of the National Basketball Association finals. It features the top athletes it sponsors such as U.S. swimmer Missy Franklin, Mexico's taekwondo athlete Maria Espinoza, South African sprinter Wayde van Niekerk and Canadian divers Jennifer Abel and Pamela Ware, carpooling to the Olympics. (https://youtu.be/wrAiclq3dw8)
The commercial, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, is a change of tone from the past Olympics, Biggar said. In previous years, Visa focused more on the brand and less on how people can use their products. Athletes in the new ad are seen paying for items using chip cards and other Visa products en route to the games.
"We are thinking a little bit more playfully and youthfully," Biggar said, adding that in past years the commercials were "more corporate and staid."
Visa is sponsoring 46 Olympic athletes this year, up from 37 at the Winter Games in Sochi. It also created 17 cuts of the commercial that can be used in different international markets such as Mexico, Canada and the Middle East that will feature local athletes carpooling to Rio.
While Visa declined to disclose what it spends on its global sponsorship deals with the International Olympic Committee, a source familiar with the matter said a top sponsor like Visa pays about $25 million per year for four years, or $100 million total for a summer and winter games.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker in San Francisco; Editing by Mary Milliken)