By Julia Horowitz, CNN Business

Billions of people watch FIFA's World Cup every four years, a tantalizing opportunity for advertisers who want to capitalize on the feel-good fervor of the world's biggest sporting event. But this year, it's a reputational minefield for some of the world's biggest brands.

Controversies over Qatar's human rights record have dominated early coverage of the event, requiring that advertisers tiptoe around criticism of the treatment of migrant workers and the country's criminalization of homosexuality.

"There is a real brand safety concern around it," said Liz Duff, head of commercial and operations at Total Media, an agency based in London. "That's why the ads are supporting the teams rather than the venue."

Even that may not be easy, however. FIFA's decision to punish players wearing "OneLove" armbands aimed at promoting inclusion and opposing discrimination has triggered backlash. On Tuesday, German supermarket chain Rewe ended its partnership with the German football association, calling the ban "scandalous" and "absolutely unacceptable."

Fears of a global recession are also pushing companies to curtail advertising budgets. And because the tournament takes place in the run-up to the winter holidays, instead of over the summer months, they're grappling with competing priorities.

Sport's biggest stage gets messy

No matter what, the one-month extravaganza will be huge for sports fans and brands. Forecasts indicate companies including Ford, T-Mobile, Coca-Cola and Samsung could shell out $2 billion on promotions.

It's easy to see why they're interested. In 2018, the World Cup drew in a record 3.6 billion viewers. More than 1.1 billion people watched the final live.

Given such high levels of engagement, companies are eager to capitalize on the hype and spirit of camaraderie attached to the World Cup.

Coca-Cola's campaign called "Believing is Magic" shows a woman drinking a Coke who is suddenly swept up in a huge street party. Nike has imagined scientists coming together to create a multiverse, where the greatest soccer players of all time can face off against each other. Lays owner Frito-Lay got David Beckham, Peyton Manning and Mia Hamm to weigh in on a classic debate: Is the sport called football or soccer?

Yet the event's launch has been clouded by the coverage of brutal working conditions for the migrant workers who built the tournament's infrastructure, and the announcement that captains of several European teams would not wear "OneLove" armbands since doing so would risk penalties.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized FIFA's stance on the armbands, stressing that any restrictions on freedom of expression is "concerning."

Over the weekend, which was supposed to be celebratory, FIFA President Gianni Infantino instead delivered a tirade in defense of Qatar, emphasizing the "hypocrisy" of Western critiques.

"Advertisers know the TV audiences will still be there, but will be mindful to focus on the teams, players and supporters back home rather than endorsing the event itself," said Mohammed Hamza, a media analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence.

A different backdrop

The timing of the event is also a complicating factor for brands, since ads are competing against promotions geared at holiday shopping.

"A Euros or a World Cup for four weeks in the middle of the summer — it's literally like an island in the middle of the ocean," ITV sales director Mark Trindler said on an industry podcast this past spring. It's different in the fall, he continued, as companies are thinking differently about where and how to spend their money.

Early data shows advertisers are still willing to pull out their wallets. Telemundo, which has the Spanish-language broadcast rights to the competition in the United States, said Monday that it only had a few ad slots left. It had already beaten revenue records for the tournament, and succeeded in bringing more than 20 new advertisers on board.

French broadcaster TF1 said earlier this month that it was pacing ahead on ad orders, noting that "seasonality" could turn out to be a boon.

"The demand is stronger in November and December than in July, June," executive Philippe Denery told investors.

But the gloomy economic backdrop is also raising questions about ad spending over the next month of matches. British broadcaster ITV told investors that although the tournament is set to boost ad income, there "remains a high degree of economic uncertainty."

In the end, total revenue for those airing the World Cup could depend on which teams advance. If squads in top markets go further than expected, brands are more likely to want to get in on the excitement.

"It will depend on the French football team and their capacity to go as far as possible and, if possible, in [the] final," Denery said. "It would be very appreciated by a lot of people, including us."

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