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After the Rams, Chargers and Raiders, what's the NFL's next move?

Some of these NFL truths would have been inconceivable a few years ago:

  • Three teams have been approved to relocate in a 14-month span.

  • Los Angeles, vacant for two decades, now has two NFL franchises but, for the most part, a dubious passion level.

  • Las Vegas, once off limits as a gambling mecca, is getting the Raiders in 2020.

  • Even though they’re eventually leaving, the Raiders plan to spend two and maybe three seasons in Oakland.

  • The Chargers are playing the next two seasons at StubHub Center, which has half the capacity of a typical NFL stadium.

On its own, any one of these situations would have caused major heartburn at NFL headquarters. But combined, they're a formidable challenge for a league that essentially has been bulletproof since overtaking baseball in the mid-1980s as the nation's No. 1 sports league.

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This is undeniably an experimental period for the NFL, and as team owners headed home this week from their annual meetings, watchful eyes will be trained on California, where most of the tumult has taken place.

The rapid-fire relocations are unusual but not unprecedented. There were four moves approved in 1995 — the Los Angeles Rams to St. Louis, the Los Angeles Raiders to Oakland, the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, and the Houston Oilers to Nashville (via Memphis) — and, compared to the recent three, those relocations were much more abrupt and unexpected.

"Those teams, that wasn't something that started in the last year or two," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said of the Rams, Chargers and Raiders. "They have been struggling with stadiums for at least a decade in almost every one of those cases. So we now have stability. We have two franchises back in the entertainment capital of the world, and in reality that is providing us more stability. But we also understand how painful it is when that happens."

There's undoubtedly more pain on the way. Owners see state-of-the-art stadiums open in other cities and get increasingly dissatisfied with their own aging venues, even if those places are only 20 years old. Public money is harder and harder to find — you saw how the league jumped at the $750 million the Nevada legislature offered — so surely there will be hardball negotiations to come in NFL cities such as Buffalo, Jacksonville and Charlotte. Remember, a renovated stadium cannot compare to, say, the space-age palace the Falcons are opening in Atlanta this season.

In many ways, Los Angeles was more valuable to the league without a team than with one. It was the hammer that stadium-hungry teams held over the heads of their cities in order to get deals done. Now that there's no room at the Los Angeles inn, the league will have to cultivate other potential markets to use for leverage (or a possible relocation), so don't expect San Diego or the East Bay to be ignored too long, especially if there's an owner who has the will and wherewithal to self-finance a stadium there.

In the meantime, as the Rams were reminded last season, winning is essential to captivating the Los Angeles audience.

"Any time the move finally would occur in L.A., it was going to be kind of in L.A. fashion, glitzy and high profile, and it was going to be unknown," said Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, who had the market transfixed during his USC days. "It's a very difficult market. There are some tremendous challenges that come along with it. The stadiums are at issue, and finding homes and finding fans and finding loyalty and all of that. And then finding winning.

"Los Angeles has been the city of champions, and that's what they follow. That's what they expect. So there's a lot of expectation. Everything about this is about as L.A. as you can get."

In Oakland, winning might not even be enough. The awkward situation of a lame-duck team lingering for two or more seasons is almost too bizarre to process. It's hard to imagine that ending well.

Raiders owner Mark Davis has left open the possibility of his team sticking around for the 2019 season, but that's a notion the executive director of the agency that runs the Oakland Coliseum slammed shut.

"I would say to you with the highest level of confidence, my opinion and recommendation and that of my board members — I don't believe there is any appetite for a third season [in Oakland]," Scott McKibben of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority told USA Today.

Then again, considering what has transpired over the past 14 head-spinning months, stranger things have happened.

Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer

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