Luckily for us, this is an issue that's only tangentially related to the Seattle Seahawks, since they're not going anywhere, but an issue that's sure to change the shape of the NFC West in the near future: NFL Commish Roger Goodell has recently released a set of procedures any team would have to follow in order to move to Los Angeles. There is a plan (about as far along as Chris Hansen's Sonics SoDo arena plan) for a privately-financed football stadium, and other amenities, on the same lot as the Staples Center; there are other rumors of development plans in City of Industry and Carson, but the "Farmers Field" plan as mentioned above is the most far-along, and likely to be done. Goodell's memo essentially states that any tea that wishes to move to Los Angeles asks the NFL to do so some time between January 1st and February 15th of 2013 -- and I assume the same January-February period of any other year, until 2 franchises reside there -- and makes it clear that they have a valid reason for ditching their current city, as well as a place to play from the moment they give notice until the stadium is fully built.
There are three teams that are in a position to announce a move to Los Angeles during that January-February timeline mentioned above, and two other franchises that could look to move in a few years, when their lease is up:
The three teams that are no longer contractually obligated to play in their current cities right now (as far as I know) are the Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills. Actually, that's not entirely true; the Raiders did agree to extend their lease with their current stadium through the 2013 season, however said agreement (again, as far as I know) doesn't prohibit the Davis family from asking the NFL to move to LA in 7 months, play out the string in Oakland in 2013, and then move to LA, and possibly play a season or more in the LA Coliseum or Rose Bowl until the new stadium is finished. The current lease was agreed to 3 years ago in an effort to work out a new stadium deal, but I've not heard of any rumors that anything like that is in the works, or even if they can tag along with the 49ers to their new Santa Clara digs.
Now, I don't know if the Davis Family wants to move the team, or if the Davis family wants to sell the team to someone who will move the team, and, really, all I know about the Davis family is that Mark Davis has a goofy haircut. The San Diego Chargers, on the other hand, are only under contract to stay put through the end of this season, which matters little since Goodell and the NFL won't let a team move approximately two months before the regular season starts. The Chargers and the city of San Diego have seemingly been in an endless battle over a new stadium deal, although it could be debated that the two parties have not yet fully exhausted all possible avenues to finalize some kind of stadium agreement. Since the Raiders share the same "region" as the Niners, it's possible that the NFL might be more inclined to keep the Chargers in San Diego.
Good news and bad news for Buffalo, as there are talks about a $200 million renovation on Ralph Wilson stadium, which would come along with a new lease, however those talks are really just talk, because whatever the franchise does to determine its future home will only be decided when Ralph Wilson himself dies. It's grim, but that's the reality of the situation. Wilson is 93-years-old and has no plans to move or sell the team while he still draws breath, but it's widely believed that his estate will sell the team after he passes. So any plans to renovate the current stadium probably won't be agreed to until a new ownership is in place, one that won't move the team. If Wilson were to die before 2013 and his kids agreed to sell the team to someone who wants to move the franchise to LA, the NFL will probably let that happen, depending on how enthusiastic they are to have a team in Toronto.
Two other teams that have been noted as being in the "Los Angeles hunt" but aren't going anywhere in 2013 are the St. Louis Rams and the Jacksonville Jaguars. As far as the Jags are concerned, they have a lease that keeps the team in town through 2030, and a new owner in Shahid Khan that has shown zero interest in moving the team. Things could change, of course, but it's very unlikely shit will hit the fan in enough time to beat 2 other teams to Los Angeles. The Rams have a lease that expires after the 2014 season ends, but it's a little stickier than just that; technically the Rams signed a 30-year lease when they moved to St. Louis in 1995, but that is in effect only if the Edward Jones Dome was among the top quarter of all NFL stadiums, which it clearly is not. There is an arbitration process currently going on between the Rams and the city of St. Louis to determine how much public financing will go into renovating the Ed Jones Dome, with he Rams requesting $700 million and the city offering $124 million (it's possible that the 3-person arbitration panel accepts either proposal or recommends their own plan somewhere in between those two figures). That process should rap up sometimes next year, although if an agreement isn't reached through arbitration both parties can still negotiate beyond that, so I doubt any decision to move will be made before 2015.
Those are the only realistic (or even semi-realistic) possibilities for relocation to Los Angeles, so let's speculate a bit on how our division will look if said possibilities went into effect:
- The Rams move to LA: Nothing changes.
- The Jags move to LA: They move to the NFC West, and the Rams move to the AFC South. St. Louis is a lot closer to Houston and Nashville than it is to Seattle and San Francisco.
- The Bills move to LA: They move to the NFC West (and probably get a new name), the Rams move to the AFC South and the Colts move to the AFC East. For a geographical standpoint it might be better get Baltimore into the AFC East (and move the Colts to the AFC North), but considering that the Colts were in the AFC East before realignment, they might just put back into their old home.
- The Chargers OR the Raiders move to LA: Nothing changes (this will probably happen in conjunction with the Bills or Rams or Jags moving into town, as well).
- The Chargers AND the Raiders move to LA: This may be the most preferable move, even though franchise relocation in any situation is a sucky thing to do to loyal fans, but at least both teams will remain in-state, and move back to a town they've inhabited before. I'm pretty sure the NFL won't let two AFC West teams play in the same city, though, so one of them (probably the Chargers) will play in the NFC West, and the Rams will go to the AFC West, where at least they'll be in proximity of the Chiefs.
Look, I don't want any team to move from their current city, but it's ridiculous to think that the NFL is going to leave Los Angeles empty, especially with a billion-dollar stadium deal on the table. And, really, the only reason why there isn't a new stadium in LA right now is because no team stuck around long enough to advocate for one, and it's a lot easier to get a stadium deal pushed through if there's a team actually around to advocate for one. I'm not sure how hard Al Davis and Georgia Fontiere fought for a new stadium before bolting town, but it's also widely known that they were both among the kookiest owners in the league (and, oh yeah, may they both Rest In Peace). The issue was never about apathetic LA fans concerns that "there's too much stuff to do in town to get people to go watch a football game;" that the city hasn't burned itself down in anger over not having an NFL team doesn't mean a city of over 10 million people won't find at least 60,000 people every Sunday to go, if for nothing else than to root for the opponents. There'll be two teams in Los Angeles very soon, and it's just a question of who and when.