WITH billions of dollars being bet illegally on sports events throughout the United States each year, it was only a matter of time, perhaps, before money-starved state governments began eyeing this untapped source of revenue. In Oregon it is an accomplished fact. That state will launch a football wagering plan Sept. 6 - four days before the start of the pro season. Now a similar proposal is being studied in Massachusetts amid predictions that it could raise $50 million or more a year. New Hampshire, Kentucky, Illinois, and Michigan have also expressed interest. If past history with lotteries is any criterion, others will be quick to jump on the bandwagon once it starts rolling.
Supporters say government-run sports betting is an idea whose time has come, that it takes money being wagered illegally anyway and channels it into desperately needed state services.
``We feel it is not a significant expansion of gambling, but taking advantage of an existing situation,'' said State Rep. William D. Galvin (D) of Boston, sponsor of a bill to be considered by the Massachusetts legislature this fall.
``Let's face it,'' he added. ``If we don't do this, is there going to be any less wagering on pro football?''
But opponents, ranging from pro football officials to social workers to illegal bookmakers themselves, disagree.
``We feel it could create new gamblers,'' National Football League (NFL) spokesman Jim Heffernan told the Monitor. ``We feel it could turn the casual bettor into a habit bettor. ... And most of this type of betting is done by people who can least afford it.''
Thomas N. Cummings, executive director of the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling, Inc., argued in the same vein.
``This is a real red flag,'' he said. ``You and I know the lottery has the best maketing operation in the country. This is going to create a whole new market.
``Maybe 95 percent of the new people will be social, casual gamblers. But it's the other 5 percent I worry about. The easier and more available gambling is, the more people there are in trouble.''
Both the Oregon plan and the one proposed for Massachusetts are restricted - at least for now - to multi-game pro football cards similar to those easily available in offices, factories, corner stores, etc. Galvin insists that in the Massachusetts case it would stay that way - that there is no thought of escalating it to include other pro or college sports, or to permit betting on individual games.
Others, though, aren't so sure.
``Let's say the lottery puts on a campaign all through the football season - promoting, encouraging, romanticizing it,'' Mr. Cummings said. ``Now it's January and what do they say? `Thank you very much; go home, sit down, and wait 'til next September'? Obviously the logical progression is going to be cards in other sports.''
Except for Nevada, where sports betting has been legal for years, the only other state to try it was Delaware in 1976. The NFL challenged that plan in court, but the whole thing became moot when the state abandoned it after one season for lack of interest.
HEFFERNAN says the league is ``keeping its options open'' as to legal action while emphasizing its traditional opposition to all forms of sports betting. Galvin calls the NFL posture ``hypocritical.''
``The league has done nothing for decades to stop gambling,'' he said. ``You see point spreads in all the papers. You see known gamblers on pre-game shows. ... Now they say we're going to sully their beautiful game - that people are going to pay more attention to the point spread than to the game. Where have they been?''
Despite the Delaware experience, one thing most people agree on (whether they approve or not) is that a state-run game would raise money. Initial estimates in Oregon call for a gross of $50 million. Massachusetts officials, taking into account their state's twice-as-large population, the presence of a pro team, and the success enjoyed by the present state lottery, would expect to gross $150 million and net $50 million. Galvin says even that estimate is conservative.
But where will all this money come from? Opponents scoff at the contention that the state game will simply cut into the business of the bookies. On the contrary, says Cummings, once people start betting legally it is a frequent progression to the illegal variety.
``This will be like a farm system for the bookies,'' he said.
An area bookmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity, agreed. ``This isn't going to cut into our business,'' he said. ``It's just going to get people interested and increase it. And it will give more of a sense of legality to sports betting all around. How can they say, `It's OK to bet with us but not with somebody else'?''
He also agreed that the cards are an opening wedge.
``The real bettors aren't betting the cards; that's the amateurs,'' he said. ``I've never even seen a card since I stopped working a regular office back in the '60s. And I've never known a guy in the business who sold them.
``The big money is in individual games - which I'm sure the state will get into sooner or later.''