Giannis Antetokounmpo delivered the signature moment of the NBA season Thursday, one that was a long time coming.

The Milwaukee Bucks forward outdueled LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in a matchup of the league’s two best teams and two most popular players. To cap the night, Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, celebrated a three-pointer by placing an invisible crown atop his head — a suggestion that he has displaced “King James” from basketball’s throne. Antetokounmpo’s provocative challenge to James drew millions of views on social media, and their superstar showdown averaged 2.8 million viewers on TNT, making it the NBA’s most-watched game since the season’s opening week.

Yet the NBA and its major television partners have found such banner performances elusive this season. Despite a scoring boom and an abundance of magnetic personalities such as Antetokounmpo and James, NBA ratings on ESPN and TNT, through mid-December, were down more than 15 percent compared with last year. That sharp dip has exacerbated one of the toughest stretches recently for the league, which has been rocked by high-profile injuries, the Hong Kong controversy and former commissioner David Stern’s brain hemorrhage.

As the NBA’s annual Christmas Day showcase arrives Wednesday, Commissioner Adam Silver is resolute in the face of questions about his league’s popularity. At the same time, the 57-year-old executive has expressed concerns about declining cable television audiences, has floated wide-ranging proposals intended to inject excitement into the regular season schedule and has made it clear that the NBA’s future media partnerships will look very different than they do today.

“I’m not surprised that our ratings are down thus far,” Silver told The Washington Post by telephone from New York on Thursday. “I’m not concerned, either. In terms of every other key indicator that we look at that measures the popularity of the league, we’re up. We’re up in attendance over a record-setting high from last year. Social media engagement remains in the magnitude of 1.6 billion people on a global basis. Our League Pass viewership is up. Our merchandising sales are up. The issue then, for me, is that we’re going through a transition in terms of how [the league] is distributed to our fans, particularly our young fans.”

Inside the ratings slump

The first two months of the season produced a perfect storm for bad television ratings: “Entering Christmas, NBA games were down 17 percent on ESPN and 7 percent on TNT.”. Numerous early-season games failed to average at least 1 million viewers, a common benchmark for success. By contrast, the NFL, which offers most of its games on broadcast television rather than cable, posted ratings gains this fall.

The NBA season opened with uncertainty, given that the Golden State Warriors, the premier ratings driver in recent years, had lost Kevin Durant to free agency and Klay Thompson to a knee injury. The networks had front-loaded the Warriors on their television schedules to protect against the possibility that further injuries might compromise their playoff hopes. As it turned out, Stephen Curry broke his hand in his fourth game, and the networks were stuck airing a Warriors team that has plummeted overnight to the Western Conference’s worst record.

Another big bet backfired when No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson was lost to a knee injury during the preseason. Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans were lined up to appear on TNT, ESPN or NBA TV in 11 of their first 20 games, including a pair of showcases during the opening week. But Williamson has yet to play, and the Pelicans have sputtered to the West’s second-worst record.

“It was the right strategy,” a network executive insisted, pointing to the explosive interest that has followed Williamson since he was in high school.

Meanwhile, the NBA and the networks knew they would be forced to wait on perhaps the Eastern Conference’s biggest draw. Durant, who tore his Achilles’ tendon in the NBA Finals before signing with the Brooklyn Nets, is expected to miss the entire season. Kyrie Irving, his new co-headliner, has missed weeks with a shoulder injury.

The combined weight of superstar absences has left Silver wishing for a “magic potion” to avoid injuries because “nothing is more important [to ratings and time spent viewing] than the players on the court.” Because the NBA clears its nightly schedules to turn TNT games into showcase events, the network has limited ability to flex out of a matchup even if it knows a superstar will be sidelined.

Network decision-makers point to other contributing factors in explaining the early-season ratings decline. TNT’s Thursday night slate faced stiff competition from the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football” lineup, and Major League Baseball’s World Series, which went a full seven games, conflicted with four national NBA slates.

The westward migration of superstars James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George has made it more difficult for the networks to schedule premier matchups in the opening half of their nightly doubleheaders, which typically feature Eastern Conference teams. Efforts to move up the start times of certain West Coast games from 10:30 p.m. Eastern time to 10 p.m. to accommodate Eastern viewers were intended as an experiment and have not yet produced dramatic results.

The NBA has found some success in neutralizing “load management,” the phrase given to the strategic resting of players. After the practice undercut high-profile games for years, Silver instituted a policy that prevents teams from resting marquee players during nationally televised games. The league’s position now is that no player has missed a nationally televised game this season for load management.

“Some people got turned off by load management,” said ESPN analyst Jalen Rose, a former star player. “That’s why the league, smartly, eliminated that [phrase] from the stat sheet.”

James and the Lakers could prove to be a saving grace: The networks trusted their season-long staying power and backloaded their national television appearances. Given the Lakers’ strong start, polarizing reputation and big viewership numbers, their late-season appearances could offset the early declines.

“The Warriors needed some time to ramp up,” a network executive said. “They became a national brand that a lot of people loved, and a lot of people loved to see fail. When it gets to that point, it’s a needle-mover.”

Radical changes coming

Even with perfect health for its superstars, Silver’s NBA would be contemplating an existential crisis. The NBA has the youngest average viewer of the four major sports leagues, and few of its games appear on broadcast television. In addition to younger fans who have canceled their cable TV subscriptions or never had them in the first place, viewership among current cable subscribers in the coveted 18-to-34 demographic has declined 49 percent overall over the past four years under pressure from on-demand content services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube.

Silver hinted at the perils of cable television at a Sports Business Journal conference this month, saying the model was “broken to a certain extent.” In an interview with The Post, he clarified that his phrasing was intended as a “shorthand” reference to the industry’s changes.

“We know by every indicator of popularity that supply and demand aren’t meeting,” Silver said. “Many of our key constituent fans either do not subscribe to traditional cable or, as a matter of their viewing pattern and practice, don’t watch it. They’re engaged with other forms of media in which, because of the exclusivities in our current deal, don’t carry our live games.”

Reaching, appealing to and monetizing those fans has become the central challenge for the NBA, given that its media rights deals are the league’s financial lifeblood. The league struck a nine-year domestic media rights deal worth a combined $24 billion with ESPN and Turner in 2014, and extensive planning already has begun for how the next agreement should look in light of industry changes. Silver said he expects the next five years to bring more change to the media and technology business than the past 40 years.

The NBA’s future media strategy is slowly beginning to unfold: It must reduce its reliance on cable television as a distribution method while growing its presence on streaming platforms, mobile devices and tablets and by delving into related sectors with crossover potential such as sports gambling, video games and virtual reality.

“The league needs to think about how it expands its audience for live games after teaching a generation to watch highlights instead of the game itself,” LightShed Partners media analyst Rich Greenfield said. “Experimenting with digital partners will become increasingly important.”

ESPN analyst Jay Williams acknowledged that networks must recalibrate to better serve Generation Z’s preference for mobile viewing and highlights, and those efforts appear to be underway. WarnerMedia, which was recently bought by AT&T, has invested in numerous services aimed at non-television audiences, including the HBO Max streaming service, the Bleacher Report digital media company and app, and the popular House of Highlights social media accounts. Disney, ESPN’s parent company, operates the ESPN3 streaming service and recently launched the Disney Plus on-demand streaming service and content catalogue.

Silver, who is focused on “making each individual minute of every game as compelling as possible,” praised Disney Plus and called AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner “the best thing that could have happened” for his league because it will marry NBA programming with more wireless devices.

In recent years, the NBA has experimented with international streams of its games on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. While the league has considered “slicing” its future media rights deals into different packages based on a partner’s distribution method, Silver said that idea is “ultimately less likely” because the league’s major media partners are crafting “integrated [distribution] packages” to appeal to rightsholders such as the NBA.

Reimagining the game

Distribution is only part of the equation. The NBA has tinkered with its basketball product to make it more viewer-friendly, and it has unveiled a list of major schedule and format proposals in hopes of injecting additional interest into a six-month regular season.

After first implementing changes aimed at shortening games and smoothing out the viewing experience, the NBA has proposed trimming the season from 82 games to 78 in 2021-22, adding an in-season tournament and adding win-or-go-home play-in games to the start of the postseason. The league also has floated changing its playoff format to reseed the final four teams by record to help ensure the best teams square off in the Finals. A vote on these changes is expected in April.

“Games that are meaningful are more likely to draw ratings,” Silver said. “Not to say [the in-season tournament] is a permanent change, but let’s try this. It’s going to require a leap of faith by our teams, the players’ association, our network partners and our marketing partners. It’s based on our best research and ideas. Until we execute on it, we won’t really know how big of a difference it will make.”

From a technology standpoint, the NBA is rethinking virtually every aspect of the viewership experience. In the near future, the league wants fans to be able to toggle through numerous camera angles and audio feeds, participate in gambling and fantasy games during the course of live action, and watch content captured by wearable cameras on players, in virtual reality experiences and in video game environments. This wide-ranging strategy might seem haphazard, but the NBA is betting that a deep familiarity with all types of cutting-edge entertainment developments will best position it in the broader marketplace.

The media companies vying to carry NBA games and content during the next round of negotiations will ultimately determine whether this is a sound approach. Dan Cohen of Octagon’s Global Media Rights Consulting division predicted the NBA “shouldn’t see a decrease in rights fees” going forward because demand for live sports content from traditional media companies will grow as they expand their digital offerings.

Yet there are plenty of potential challenges looming: Cable trends are unlikely to reverse, and James’s eventual retirement could trigger a swoon in interest as Michael Jordan’s once did. It also has become so easy to follow every aspect of a superstar’s life — fashion, highlights, endorsements, off-court interests, political advocacy, free agency rumors — that some fans might conclude that full-game content has become superfluous.

Silver is bracing for industry disruption and plotting major changes of his own, but he isn’t panicking.

“We’re fortunate that we have another five years after this season on our two large domestic television deals,” he said. “It’s early days. We’re not passive observers. We’re actively engaged.”

Ben Strauss contributed to this report.

Read more: