By Joe Mason
South Philly Review
It still has the history.
It now has the comfort and cleanliness, too.
The 2300 Arena, located at 2300 S. Swanson St., started out as a warehouse for Mummers, who would build and store their floats for the annual New Year’s Day parade. But the group needed money, so it started to rent the building out for events, and one of the first groups to rent it was a professional wrestling group, Eastern Championship Wrestling.
It quickly went from a dingy arena that would hold a few hundred fans to a world-famous venue. But it was still a dingy arena.
“It became a cult attraction and was known all over the world,” said Roger Artigiani, who is now the CEO of the building. “It grew worldwide. In 1993, it started holding this hard-edge wrestling with a lot of local guys who didn’t make it to WCW or WWE, and they started doing a brand of wrestling that used tables, ladders and chairs. But then it just took off.
“If you’re a baseball player, you want to play at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. That’s what this building is. We’ll get calls from people from London who ask if they can come when there are no shows going on, just to take a picture. It’s not just people all over the country, it’s people all over the world. We just like seeing the people. We don’t really understand it, but it’s hardcore fans who love it.”
The Viking Hall stayed true to its roots, and became known as the ECW Arena for the promotion, which went from Eastern Championship Wrestling to Extreme Championship Wrestling. But once ECW folded in 2001, the building needed events to stay open, so it started holding boxing and other wrestling events. But until Artigiani took over, it was still a building better known for history than its amenities.
That’s changed, and now the 2300 Arena is a place that can host just about any event, from boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts to concerts and conventions.
But like all venues, it’s struggling because of coronavirus. Social distancing and shutdowns have made events nearly impossible, and because of that, the building sits vacant a lot. But there are still bills to be paid, so Artigiani and his partner Christy Bottie are doing whatever they can to keep the building from closing.
It hasn’t been easy, but it looks like it’s going to be saved.
“It’s been hard, but we are coming out of it, but we were in danger,” Artigiani said. “Due to a lot of support, not just from a GoFundMe, but from doing things that will help us. We’re hoping in the next couple weeks we can shut (the GoFundMe) down. It was great, the people that donated were very, very good people who have a lot of memories of the place. A lot of fans.
“It was other things, too. Other people in the promotion business who want to be able to keep using it. It’s gone over pretty well. Reorganize, move some things around. We have to get by the next 60 or 90 days. We can’t stay shut down for eight or nine months, but if things get better, we should be OK.”
Artigiani is very passionate about the building because under his and Bottie’s leadership, the building is much different than old-time ECW fans would remember.
“People loved the building, but everyone always said the building was a (craphole),” said Artigiani, who was originally from New York, but now lives in South Philly. “For us, it took five or six years to get it up to code. It was an electrical nightmare. It was a plumbing nightmare. But little by little, we made it a place people would want to be.”
Once the building was more presentable, it became a destination for reputable boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts outfits to hold events.
Then, in recent years, it added a bar and catering that can host much bigger events.
“We’ve had some great events here, and they’ve gone great,” Artigiani said. “When we landed the Eagles Super Bowl ring ceremony, that was a great event. But the corporate events, too, have been great. The same year, we had Subaru of America had their convention in Philadelphia. Those two events really set us off. It skyrocketed.
“Then we booked events for University of Penn, the School District of Philadelphia. A whole slew of companies that wanted something different. Four walls decorate it the way they want it, did a lot of outstanding events. Just this past January or February, we said we think this year is going to be a great year for us. We were on pace to break all kinds of records. Then everything hit. Nobody canceled, we had one cancellation, but we couldn’t have things because of the shutdown.”
When restrictions are lifted, the 2300 Arena will be ready to go. And if you’re someone who attended wrestling shows in the 1990s, you might want to come to a show to check out the old ECW Arena, because chances are you won’t recognize it.
“A lot of that has to do with Christy, she made it look like the concept we wanted,” Artigiani said. Edgy, cool, different. It’s high tech. Considering the size, it’s extremely high tech. We don’t compare to any other place in the nation. We’re not one of the big arenas, but we have a lot of what they have.
“Full capacity is 1,300, but come the spring, we’ll have it reevaluated and we believe with the elevation, maybe 2,300. Our capacity was based on the arena, but now it’s so much bigger with the bar area.”
Artigiani believes, thanks to some donations and early bookings, the arena will hold on. He estimates if restrictions continue to the early spring and with some help, things will be OK. If it goes longer, things could get dicey. He has made the effort to keep employees on staff and continue to get paid.
The last thing their partners want is for the arena to shut down. Nobody agrees more than Artigiani and Bottie.
“What started off as just another mural job in the beginning turned into one of the most incredible projects I’ve ever worked on,” Bottie said. “Seven years later looking back, it’s hard to believe what we have overcome and accomplished in this time. So, now after surviving all we have gone through this past year, I have to believe we will come out stronger on the other side.”
To donate to the arena, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-2300-arena.