‘I took my hobby and made it my life’

Behind the scenes with sports announcer Niv Zahavi.

Niv Zahavi 521 (photo credit: Inbal Aharoni )
Niv Zahavi 521
(photo credit: Inbal Aharoni )
It’s some five hours before the big game – the semifinals of the men’s basketball State Cup – and Maccabi Tel Aviv–Hapoel Holon scheduled matchup announcer Niv Zahavi has just come off working the high-school handball semifinals.
He’s nervous before hosting the night’s face-off, Zahavi says, but is trying not to think about it.
“I am going to go home and try to eat something, and play soccer on Sony Playstation.” Today it is Playstation, when he was a boy, it was Playmobil.
“I always knew I wanted to be a sports announcer,” says Zahavi.
“When I was little I would take my Playmobil soldiers and make them into a soccer team – one defender was No. 1, another defender was No. 5, the scorer was No. 9 or 11. So I would take shoes as goalposts, and marbles as balls, and I would play.”
As he grew older, Zahavi’s days were spent playing sports, watching sports programs and talking sports, every opportunity he got. In high school, Zahavi took to the court himself as a small forward in Israel’s fourth-tier League Alef for teams like Hapoel Yeroham and Hapoel Omer.
After stints in Eilat as a singing waiter, an extra in Habimah Theater productions and after studying things like on-camera acting, as well as getting certified as a basketball instructor, Zahavi says he acted on his true calling.
“I decided to go do a course on sports announcing and writing,” he says.
With a little luck and a little tenacity, Zahavi found himself with his first sports announcer gig – hosting the European campaign home games of Hapoel Tel Aviv.
“I wanted to be the announcer there, so I went and talked to the marketing manager,” he recalls, adding that after four games he was made the team’s regular announcer.
Several years later, after a road that has taken him to Ramat Hasharon basketball (women’s), Hapoel Holon, Bnei Hasharon and his current team affiliation – BC Habik’a – Zahavi has established himself as a consistently working announcer and host, covering events including basketball, soccer, handball, volleyball and track-andfield on all levels.
“I love my job,” he says. “I took my hobby and made it my life.”
It is now some three and a half hours before the big game. Zahavi waits outside the Nokia Arena in Yad Eliyahu.
The sidewalks are teeming with buses and people. Fathers with young sons.
Teenage boys in testosterone-laden packs. Cops and security personnel. A blind beggar with a walking stick navigates the crowds surprisingly well, asking for money. Fans are lined up at the gates, waiting to be let in. Their colors blend into a mass of yellow and purple, yellow and blue, orange, and light blue.
Zahavi stands out in his suit and tie.
“Have you come to sing tonight?” a security guard recognizes him and laughs as he shakes his hand.
“Actually, I’m still waiting for my pass to be let in,” Zahavi says, shaking his head. In his hands he holds typed notes – the things he plans to say in the introduction as he opens the game.
Every few minutes he is on his phone, texting, checking the time.
Zahavi spends the final hours before a game getting the latest on the team lineups – which players are injured, which players are in. He checks out the game schedule – finds out whether there are any notables he has to introduce, even gets updates on what music is to be played.
Finally, Zahavi’s pass arrives. He is let into the arena.
“I’m excited,” he admits. “If I don’t get excited before a game like this, I won’t do well.”
Doing well means feeling the audience in the stands – feeding off of their energy, while giving energy back.
It’s a job that brings with it its share of stress – positive and negative.
“I didn’t sleep well last night and I didn’t eat much today,” Zahavi says.
“You know you are going to get to the arena and it’s going to be full – that in itself is exciting.”
In between greetings to various basketball personalities, he is still glancing at his phone, at his notes. The Hapoel Holon team arrives and is ushered in through an open gate. General manager Pini Gershon nods in recognition, assistant coach Elad Hasin stops by to say hello.
Zahavi is in the final moments before his turn on the court. Inside the arena, the first game of the night is well under way. Maccabi Rishon Lezion is going head-to-head with Zahavi’s home team, Habik’a. Through the closed doors of the stadium itself, Rishon fans can be heard thundering their approval every time their team scores.
It is clear there is some sort of primal dance going on – between the fans and their team, the team and the announcer, the announcer and the fans. It goes back and forth and which comes first is hard to say. But it is obvious the announcer is part of it.
“Three points!” the announcer bellows. The crowd goes wild.
“He pushes the audience in a game, he wakes them up,” says Meir Tapiro, a Premier League veteran currently playing point guard for Maccabi Ashdod, when asked about the role of the game announcer. “He has a very important part to play here – he must take control of the game, whether it’s good or bad.”
Some fans, however, see things otherwise.
“We don’t need an announcer,” 42- year-old die-hard Hapoel Holon fan Shlomi Levy says. “We are the announcers ourselves!” His friend gives him a slap on the back in agreement.
His daughter laughs.
It is 9 p.m. and Zahavi has taken to his small table at courtside. The arena is full almost to capacity, awash in yellow and blue on one side, and yellow and purple on the other. Drums roll.
People cheer. Vendors walk the aisles.
Popcorn and sunflower seeds litter the floor. The main event is about to begin.
“Welcome to the Nokia Sports Arena,” Zahavi begins, “to the semifinals of the Israel Cup championships. In this game Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv and Hapoel Holon will be playing.”
He falls silent for a moment, and the crowd roars....
Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Rishon Lezion both won their games and advanced to the Israel Cup finals, which were held after press time on Thursday at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv.