The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

NBC single-handedly pays for a fifth of all Olympic Games

A remote-controlled television camera follows the action during a men's curling training session at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

It's no secret NBC is willing to shell out enormous sums to the International Olympic Committee so it can broadcast the Games to American viewers. In 2011, the network offered $4.38 billion to the IOC in hopes of winning an exclusive broadcast license through 2020.

NBC seems intent on securing those rights at almost any price, whether the network turns a profit on it or not. That view paints the network as the IOC's humble supplicant, competing against other networks for the organizing committee's coveted favor. But the reality is just the opposite: Without American networks' largesse, the IOC could hardly afford to run the Olympics at all.

Take NBC's contributions to this year's Winter Olympics. For its Sochi broadcast license, the company paid $775 million. What that number doesn't reveal is how much that means to the IOC. Turns out it's quite a bit. NBC accounts for a staggering 62 percent of the IOC's $1.26 billion in broadcast revenue for Sochi 2014.

The pattern repeats itself as you go back in time. NBC paid $894 million to broadcast Beijing 2008, representing 51 percent of the IOC's broadcast revenue for those Games.

In Athens 2004, NBC paid $793 million on total IOC broadcast revenues of $1.49 billion, or 53 percent.

In other words, NBC represents perhaps the single largest contributor to the IOC in terms of broadcast fees. Other data from the committee show the IOC derives about half its budget from such money:

Since NBC routinely covers half or more of that 47 percent, that means the network effectively accounts for a quarter of the IOC's revenues — maybe more. And that means NBC has a huge role to play in subsidizing the Games themselves. According to the IOC, 90 percent of its income goes toward various country-level organizing committees tasked with setting up the Games.

Ultimately, NBC's share may be directly supporting as much as a fifth of the entire Olympic Games. While that may sound natural given NBC's prominence in the United States, it's a disproportionately large amount of money considering that there are 22 other broadcasters that are also paying to show the Olympics to dozens of countries around the world. It also says a lot about the underlying power dynamics between NBC, the IOC, and why you generally can't watch the Olympics without paying for it.