BEIJING — Television viewers around the world are tuning into the Beijing Games in record numbers, and it's likely to fill the coffers of the International Olympic Committee like never before and ease pressure to tinker with the Olympic formula.
Chalk it up to the "Phelps effect." Or it could be interest in China's athletic prowess. They are among the reasons why viewers from Oklahoma City to Osaka, from Minneapolis to Moscow, have been tuning into their televisions and going onto the internet.
"I can tell you that generally ratings are higher than for any Olympic Games before," Timo Lumme, director of television and marketing services for the IOC, said Wednesday.
The Beijing Games have already become the most watched event in U.S. television history, surpassing even the 1996 Atlanta Games and sweeping NBC into muscular primetime dominance. When swimmer Michael Phelps won his eighth gold medal last Saturday night, NBC drew more viewers than at any time since 1990.
As a result, International Olympics officials look forward to an expected sharp jump in revenue from broadcast and sponsorship fees for the 2012 winter games in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 Summer Games in London. The bulk of broadcast rights for those two games will go out for bid next year.
To the delight of Olympics organizers, broadcasters are finding that as they provide hundreds more hours of Olympics footage to feed streaming video for the Internet and even mobile phone screens, it does not eat into television viewership. Instead, people watch Olympics on television while at home, then watch it online while commuting or at work.
"People overall are consuming more media," Lumme said.
At one point in recent days, Lumme said, 1.1 million people in Britain were watching video online of British athletes. NBCOlympics.com, which provides online streaming of video, is receiving 30 times more video views now than during the Athens Games, he added.
It's little wonder that as billions of extra dollars look set to pour into the coffers of the Lausanne, Switzerland-based IOC, the organization is growing. From 150 employees a decade ago, it now has nearly 450 employees. It is slowly shaking off its reputation as a rich, white men's club, and sloughing its image as corruption prone following a scandal in the late 1990s in which some IOC members took bribes in exchange for awarding the 2002 winter games to Salt Lake City.
"In the aftermath of the Salt Lake City problems - I don't use the word 'scandal' anymore - we were able to clean house," said Prince Albert II of Monaco, who has been a member of the IOC since 1985. "We are a more democratic organization."
But worries grew that the stodgy IOC was out of touch with youth sports, and ratings prior to the Beijing games underscored that the average age of television viewers was rising.
To make the Olympics more relevant, a new sport was added to the 2008 Games - BMX cycling - a daredevil event only slightly removed from the Extreme Games popular with youth.
Baseball and softball have already been knocked out for the 2012 Games, and the IOC will decide next year whether to reinstate them for the 2016 Games or pick up one of five new sports: squash, karate, golf, rugby or roller skating.
"It's going to be one big dogfight," predicted Kai Holm, an outgoing Danish IOC member.
Whether younger committee members push for sports like skateboarding or surfing is yet to be seen. They want youthful appeal but also are cognizant of changing taste in sports, and the soaring ratings from the current games may dampen enthusiasm for experimentation.
"Who can say what's going to be appealing to youth eight years from now?" asked Ed Hula, editor-in-chief of Around the Rings, a newsletter and website about the Olympics movement.
Other issues loom for the IOC. Beijing spent some $40 billion in new roads, subways, arenas and environmental projects for its games, more than double what Athens spent for the 2004 Games, and future host cities wonder whether they can vault over the bar set by China.
"China just spent an unbelievable amount of money," said David Wallechinsky, an Olympic historian. "There are worrisome issues with London. Unlike China, they will have a budget."
Britain has budgeted about $19 billion for the 2012 Games, although Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell said earlier this month that the London Games "will be great fun" - a barb at the security restrictions that led some to call Beijing the "no-fun games."
Even if the games were not as much fun as some foreigners expected, they have been hugely popular among Chinese. Some 842 million Chinese tuned into at least part of the Olympics opening ceremony Aug. 8. Another 102 million have watched live broadcasts of Olympic events online.
That partly explains why the outlook for the IOC is rosy. China got broadcast rights for a song - ponying up just a fraction of the $18.5 million paid by the Asian Broadcasting Union, a pan-regional group - for the 2008 games. Yet Lumme said it probably reaped $400 million in advertising revenue from coverage.
When China negotiates again, he said, it will pay much more for broadcast rights.
"It's important that we get a fair contribution from China for the games," Lumme said.
Recently the IOC negotiated broadcast rights fees from Brazil for $60 million for the Sochi and London games, which Lumme said was "several multiples greater" than it paid for the 2006 Torino winter games and the Beijing games.
Lumme said the IOC reaped $2.6 billion for broadcast rights for the Torino and Beijing games, while the rights for the Vancouver 2010 winter games and the 2012 London games "will be around $3.8 or $3.9 billion."
Most of such money reverts back to national Olympic committees around the world and the 35 international federations that govern the various winter and summer sports, Lumme said.
That keeps afloat a number of international sports federations that could not survive on their own. The less-popular sports in the Olympics, such as rowing and sailing, tend to stick together to avoid getting ousted from the Olympics, even as their revenue stream from the IOC grows steadily along with soaring income from broadcast rights.
"It's very hard to get rid of a sport in the Olympics," said Wallechinsky, the historian.
Added Hula: "Maybe it seems to be less urgent now with all these great ratings."