LAS VEGAS – As Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson began to talk about the financial issues his member schools face, the first team he singled out was Air Force.

Thompson mentioned a proposed $400 billion Department of Defense budget cut, and how that could affect Air Force and its athletic programs. He went on to mention every other school in the Mountain West, and how each one is looking at budget cuts of some kind.

“You do what you can afford to do,” Thompson said. “That had to have played a role in Utah, TCU, BYU leaving – the finances.

“There are big challenges.”

The Mountain West wants to be considered a power conference. Thompson has battled for an automatic inclusion in the Bowl Championship Series, and for the financial windfall that comes with that automatic qualifier status. But the gap, especially financially, between the Mountain West and the larger conferences that get automatic inclusion in the BCS continues to grow.

Thompson spoke honestly at his annual press conference at Mountain West media days about the challenges of keeping up with larger schools and conferences that “outspend us at every turn, every way.” That’s especially difficult on the MW, which he admitted can’t provide enough television households to ever land a massive television contract like other conferences have.

Again, Thompson brought up Air Force. Feeling it needed to upgrade its facilities to compete with other schools, Falcons raised $15.5 million in private funds for the Holaday Athletic Center. That is the largest privately funded capital project in academy history.

“They flipped,” Thompson said. “They got into the rat race.”

Thompson mentioned that in the current model of Division I athletics, budgets range from $5 million to $130 million, and that system makes it impossible for teams to compete on equal footing.  

“The rulebook and the way we do business is one size fits all,” Thompson said. “That’s not going to continue to work.”  

He isn’t ready to concede that it would be better to form a separate division from the conferences outside of the top six, vowing to keep battling for BCS inclusion and find ways to compete. But he pointed out that the $840 million spent by Mountain West teams on facilities over the past 11 years, a very large figure, can’t even match what other conferences have spent.

“We’re in an unbelievable arms race,” Thompson said.

Although Thompson was candid about the challenges the Mountain West faces, he also was optimistic. New schools like Boise State in 2011 and Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii in 2012 (Hawaii will be in the MW in football only) will help maintain the conference’s profile. He talked about how he thinks the conference has proven through BCS appearances, a 22-9 bowl record over the past seven seasons and consistent top-25 finishes that it belongs in the BCS every year.

“We feel we’ve earned it,” Thompson said.