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Sky Sports' Managing Director Barney Francis has sought to defend the pay-TV broadcaster, as the debate about free-to-air sport moves back onto the agenda.

Amid rumours the BBC is set to lose live coverage of the Open golf to Sky Sports, he claimed the broadcaster is investing to secure the future of sport.

"Through investment in airtime, rights and promotion, our partnerships with sports bodies benefit fans, players and future talent alike," Mr Francis told the Daily Telegraph.

He said Sky Sports is a long-term partner for sports' governing bodies, helping to provide vital coverage, income, promotional support and exposure.

Mr Francis said it is "easy to forget" how far television sport has come in the last 20 years, noting that, in the month before Sky Sports began, just 27 hours of sport were shown on British television.

"Only half of an England football international was shown because of a clash with Neighbours. And Botham’s Ashes in 1981 was interrupted for kids’ TV shows."

Mr Francis said that, back then, sport was "under-funded and under-valued".

"Surely no one would want to turn back the clock," he added.

In his opinion, TV viewers have "never been so well served" as in 2015, with Sky Sports customers enjoying 5,000 hours of coverage per month across seven channels.

He explained that, over the last two decades, Sky has invested more than £15 billion in sport, providing an injection of funding on all levels.

Mr Francis acknowledged the argument that sport being on pay-TV leads to declining public interest. However, he challenged this theory, citing the huge popularity of the Ryder Cup as an example.

Since being broadcast on Sky Sports, it has grown to become "one of the world’s biggest sporting events", Mr Francis claimed.

"The debate around sport on television is an important one but often harks back to a bygone era. These days, pay-TV is far from a niche product enjoyed by the few," he stated.

"Well over half the UK population subscribes to a pay-TV service and Sky Sports is readily available in all those homes. It’s also far more affordable than some people might think."

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